New Labour’s campaign in the forthcoming Crewe and Nantwich by-election has hit something of a low, with the attempt to portray Conservative candidate Edward Timpson as a “toff” drawing a lot of well-justified flak. Timpson is indeed a very wealthy man; Labour candidate Tamsin Dunwoody’s attempt to portray herself as an unemployed working mother of five rings particularly hollow in the light of the fact that her late mother was the last MP. Evidently the hereditary principle is alive and well.
And yet, nasty and irrelevant though this particularly piece of campaigning undoubtedly is, there is a question that needs asking here about the inclusivity of British politics. The preponderance of Old Etonians at the top of the Conservative Party is well known; but Labour has now moved a long way from its Trade Union roots and the recent contest for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats was conducted between two men who had attended the same public school and university.
Now as far as the individual is concerned, the fact that he or she has been to a certain type of school probably doesn’t matter very much. But the collective picture is a different matter. The fact that we now have a professional political class – drawn across the parties from people who have similar, privileged backgrounds and who increasingly have no experience of an occupation outside politics – has to be a concern in a country where public faith in politicians is at something of an all-time low and in which the proportion of the electorate who turn out to vote is steadily declining.
There’s a concern that politics is increasingly becoming a rich man’s game, and that applies across all the parties. In a society in which most people are having to work harder and harder simply to keep financially afloat, and in which the idea that a family can live comfortably on the national average income is increasingly a piece of history, only those who have made their pile (or indeed inherited it) are in a position to commit the time and resources needed even for membership of a local authority. And, for all the recent revelations about the John Lewis list our politicians in Britain remain among the lowest paid in Europe, increasing that pressure further.
Now the job of democratic politicians is to represent, and to use their judgement in doing so – there will be no advocacy of plebiscitary politics on this blog. But it seems to me that when the body corporate of our political institutions is drawn from an increasingly narrow part of society, democracy has to suffer. It’s the shared, closed assumptions that are so damaging; the sense one has that, for example, Gordon Brown’s 10p tax debacle came from the fact that nobody in Government knows or cares what it is like to raise a family on £18,000 per year.
And this remoteness plays into the hands of extremists, who play on the fears of precisely that excluded class.