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We need to rebalance MPs recruitment

The Labour Party must reflect those it represents, not an elite drawn from the political class, says PAUL DONOVAN

THERE is a growing disillusionment among the electorate with the political class. 

A recent Guardian/ICM poll revealed that 56 per cent of people think the biggest problem with Westminster is politicians breaking promises, while 44 per cent are fed up with careerist MPs who “look and sound the same.”

This disillusionment has been picked up by Ukip and plays a key part in its appeal. Its leader Nigel Farage regularly delivers the line about the self-serving political class because he knows it hits the right note with the electorate. 

The claims about looking and sounding the same, if added to the expenses scandal and the latest revelations about possible paedophile cover-ups, all help create a sense of disillusionment.

There seems little doubt that at the heart of political parties there is a process of replication going on, whereby those related to existing MPs, special advisers and others on the payroll all seem to have a better chance of becoming MPs than ordinary people in the street.

The Guardian research revealed that almost half of Labour candidates selected to fight in marginal seats at the next election have links to Westminster as former special advisers, party workers, researchers, lobbyists or MPs.

Peter Hain, the former Labour cabinet minister who led a review of the party’s relationship with voters, has warned of a disconnection with the electorate, with the political class “reproducing itself.” 

In the case of the Labour Party, there seems to be a strange process of disconnection. 

The procedures of the party are incredibly democratic — positions in constituency Labour parties, from ward to the executive committee, are all elected in what can seem a laborious process. People give of their time freely and the rules stipulating equality of the sexes make the whole system seem very much of our time.

Yet at another level people seem to come in from other parts of the country, often foisted on a local party from outside. Individuals seem to be parachuted into seats who are pretty much alien to the community they seek to represent. 

The feeling that there is on one level this excellent accountable democratic process going on yet that this can be put aside at a moment’s notice to bring in some friend or acquaintance of the leadership helps breed resentment. 

There has been some disquiet about the relatives of existing MPs taking up seats. Will Straw, son of Jack, was selected for Rossendale and Darwen, while Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil, is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Aberavon. 

There are also growing storm clouds in Liverpool about the possibility of Euan Blair, son of Tony, being parachuted into Joe Benton’s seat when the veteran MP retires at the next election.

Not that this hereditary advantage is restricted to the Labour Party. A glance at the Tory benches reveals Francis Maude, son of Angus, Nick Hurd, son of Douglas, and Bernard Jenkins, son of Patrick, as just some representatives of political families.

There is no reason why the sons and daughters of existing politicians should not follow in their parents’ footsteps. They will obviously have the advantage that their parents know their way around but this should not be any barrier. Many children follow the profession of their parents but the same names gives a certain value to that sameness of the political class that the electorate so abhors.

The electorate would really like to see people that look, sound, think and live like they do. This is not reflected in a Cabinet of public school Oxbridge millionaires governing a country where more than one million people go to foodbanks.

In past times, Labour MPs were drawn in large numbers from the working class — miners, manufacturing workers, engineers and postal workers made up the ranks of the parliamentary Labour Party. Not any more. Lawyers abound, as do those who many in the electorate claim have not done a proper job of work in their lives.

It is interesting to note the career path of many of this group. They graduate, often having played an active role in student politics and working their way up the greasy pole. Leaving university, they do charity-type jobs by way of a meal ticket while charting a way around the political scene.

Take the career of Labour health spokeswoman Liz Kendall. Elected MP for Leicester West in 2010, she went to Cambridge and graduated with a first in history in 1993.

Unsuccessful in an attempt to become the Labour candidate for Chesterfield in 2001 after Tony Benn stepped down, she worked as director of Maternity Alliance, as a researcher for the King’s Fund, as an associate director for health, social care and children’s early years at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and was a special adviser to cabinet ministers Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman.

Among those organisations that count present and prospective MPs among their number are the IPPR and the Young Foundation. Kendall, Tristran Hunt, Patricia Hewitt and Lib Dem pensions minister Steve Webb have all had past involvement with IPPR, while Will Straw is presently an associate director of it. 

Labour MP for Bethnal Green Rushanara Ali was associate director at the Young Foundation, while Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy was former head of public affairs and campaigns at the Scout Association.

An important rung on the Westminster ladder though is becoming a researcher to an MP and/or a special adviser to a minister or shadow minister. Throughout this metamorphosis aspirant parliamentarians see very little of how “real people” live. Hence the complaint of a detached political class.

There are efforts being made to address these problems. Trade unions like the CWU and Unite have made real efforts to get working people into Parliament. They help prepare people to know how to tackle the system. However, the path for working people from the trade unions to become prospective parliamentary candidates are often blocked. Some in the party seem often to prefer clones from their own political class. 

Trade union-backed candidates also often find their way blocked by candidates supported by the Blairite Progress group. This conflict has all the potential to bring outright civil war in the party, especially if it fails to win the next election. 

One positive thing that the party has done is to embrace some of the culture of community organising that has proved so effective in London and other parts of the country. 

The model here, initially picked up on by David Miliband with his Movement For Change initiative, was Citizens UK. This aims to really connect with the community, using trained organisers to build clusters of support.

It is the willingness to embrace ideas like community organising that gives hope for the Labour Party of the future. There needs to be a real getting back to grass roots. This must mean working with the unions to get more representative working people into Parliament. 

It should also mean having local people from their area representing that place, wherever possible. There should be an end to the likes of Oxbridge academics and TV presenters being parachuted into workingclass constituencies of which they often know little.

Former Labour minister Michael Meacher told the Guardian that unions remained the party’s best hope of helping people from a diverse range of backgrounds into Parliament.

“Irrespective of right and left, there have been too many people who come through the traditional student politics, join the National Union of Students, get themselves a job as an assistant to an MP and the next thing is they are looking for a seat with the protection and support of the MP,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s wrong, it’s a valid route, but it has been overdone. 

“It does mean there are nothing like enough MPs who are working class. Everybody realises we need to rebalance MP recruitment and do that in a way that is proportionate to class background. A lot of people see themselves as working class, expect to be represented as working class and at a time of six years of continuing austerity expect their MPs to be far more conscious of their plight than some of them are. 

“The people most likely to do that are people who come from the same roots.”

In the case of the Labour Party the answer is very simple — stop the double-standard operation. Let those who join the party, work and get involved in the democratic process locally in representing the people in Parliament. This is what the party’s structures mandate to happen. 

It can be achieved if the processes are not overrun by decisions from the centre promoting the favoured few from the political class over and above everyone else.


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