“There are unfortunately too many people in politics who just don’t get it; who just don’t understand what life on benefits would be like,” Lord O’Donnell, the former head of the Civil Service, has warned. The factual assumption behind this lament cannot be denied. The biographical backgrounds of today’s professional politicians are not representative of the public at large, and the number who have had any direct experience of life at the bottom of the social pile is indeed very small.
The problem is that the only way to reach the top now seems to be to enter politics straight out of university and never look outside to earn a living. David Cameron and George Osborne both found their first full-time jobs in the Conservative research department. Ed Miliband was employed as a Labour researcher within a year of leaving university. Ed Balls went to work for Gordon Brown when he was 27. At the same age, Nick Clegg landed a job with the European Commission. There are many others in the middle ranks of politics with similar career paths.
Success in any highly competitive profession can depend as much on making the right contacts as on being able to do the job, giving an advantage to those who enter early and stay. Lord O’Donnell is himself an example. He joined the Civil Service at 27, and stayed for 32 years, rising to the top – although he was state-school-educated, and has stayed free of the pomposity that pervades the top end of the Civil Service.
But the social make-up of the Civil Service is less of a problem than if Parliament is dominated by people with almost no direct experience of life outside professional politics. Civil servants are expected to do a professional job carrying out decisions made by politicians. MPs are supposed to be the people who can interpret and enforce the will of the public. Yet, increasingly, they talk a language of their own, and live in a closed world of shared assumptions which leaves anyone coming in from the outside struggling to play a useful part.
The political leaders do vaguely recognise that they have a problem. In principle, they are committed to drawing more women, more people from the ethnic minorities, and more people with ordinary jobs, into the Commons. But actual selection of future MPs is made by local party organisations which mirror the Commons in that they are dominated by people who are engrossed in politics, giving the candidate who has made politics his or her life the natural advantage.
The most effective solution was pioneered by the Conservatives when they opened up the selection contest in two safe seats to every voter in the constituencies, not just party members. The excellent Sarah Wollaston, a GP for 16 years and now the chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, entered politics this way. Labour will choose its candidate for London’s mayor by a variant of this. But open primaries are expensive, risk upsetting local party members, and are likely to produce MPs who do not do what the whips tell them to, so naturally party managers are not keen. But Lord O’Donnell is right: democracy needs them, unless someone has a better idea about how to draw more people into politics from the outside.