Recent political scandals in Westminster have once again put the issue of trust in politics at the top of the agenda. An overwhelming number of people in the UK today feel they are inadequately represented by their politicians. A recent survey commissioned by IPPR, Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and Compass found four in five people in Britain say politicians poorly understand their day to day lives and are “not interested in listening to what ordinary citizens want”.
While MPs have become more representative in terms of gender and ethnicity in recent years, there is a large and growing ‘representation gap’ in terms of social class. There is an urgent need to rebuild faith amongst the public in their representatives. A key part of this should be ensuring that those people who become MPs truly are representative of the people they claim to speak for. In recent decades there has been progress in closing the ‘representation gap’ in terms of gender and ethnicity, though more progress is undoubtedly needed. However, on social class, the ‘representation gap’ has grown and is now very wide.
This class gap is not driven by voters discriminating against working-class candidates but by a lack of supply. Several studies have found voters do not discriminate against working-class candidates at the ballot box. Instead, the main cause of the class gap is the diminishing supply of working-class candidates. Some part of this is down to the decline in the proportion of the UK population that is working class – but the proportion of MPs that are working class has declined twice as fast. That is because the ‘class ceiling’ has also been lowered. Two main factors play a role in this. First, trade unions are no longer as able to provide a route for working-class people into politics. Second, the time and money required to become a candidate has grown and is now highly burdensome, something that locks out many potential working-class candidates.
Representation in politics matters because it has considerable influence on the voting behaviour of citizens and the policy choices of parliamentarians. There are two main reasons why representation matters. First, representation shapes what issues get debated and what policy decisions are taken. For example, studies have found that working-class representatives tend to be more supportive of action to tackle economic inequality and support more redistributive policy. Second, it has an impact on whether and how citizens vote at elections. The decline in working-class candidates has contributed to a decline in class voting as well as to a decline in voter turnout among working-class populations.
The report from IPPR argues that political parties and the government should take action to close the class ‘representation gap’. Measures should include the following.