This Financial Times piece is fairly typical of this week’s extensive media coverage of an interesting Policy Exchange report on social class and public appointments. Here’s the Daily Mail’s take, saying, like the FT and everyone else, that the authors have “shown” that there are now only 25 “working-class” MPs compared to lots more in the olden days. On seeing this coverage, I had a moment of deja vu. I remembered reading that same figure quite a while ago, and thinking at the time that it seemed odd – so specific, yet lacking any definition of an obviously contentious term – and it didn’t seem to relate to any group of people I could identify at the House of Commons.
I deployed my Google device. Ah, here’s a Daily Mail report from 18 months ago all about how a House of Commons “study” has “revealed that”, well, there are only 25 MPs with “working class” backgrounds. And here’s an example of the ensuing flurry by the commentariat at the time. So on two occasions over the last 18 months, “25 working class MPs” has become a media meme. Justified by “a new study has shown“, journalists, bloggers and politicians have bemoaned the terrible decline in working class MPs since the second World War.
In fact, no new “studies” have “shown” anything of the kind. On each occasion, different authors have simply referred to the same House of Commons briefing papers. The briefings are very useful and well-written summaries of other sources – but they are in no sense, and in no way claim to be, ‘studies’. Moreover, they make no use of the term ‘working-class’.
So if Policy Exchange didn’t ‘study’ MPs’ backgrounds, and neither did the House of Commons, then who did? Where does the figure of 25 come from, and what does it mean?
I put on my old Columbo coat. The House of Commons papers contain tables of MPs’ occupational backgrounds, extracted from two general election compendiums – one edited by Professors Cowley and Kavanagh; the other other edited by Professors Kavanagh and Butler. A new edition of each compendium is produced after each election and the diagrams are in both cases included in an interesting chapter written by a retired Aberdeen University academic called Byron Criddle.
Criddle’s style is discursive, a bit gossipy, and fun to read. In his tables – the ultimate (uncredited) source of the media references to ‘studies’ – he’s careful to refer to ‘manual workers’ and not ‘working class’. That’s because these are entirely different notions. Agreeing who’s a manual worker is straightforward business. On the other hand, the FT piece I referred to at the start is (unintentionally) almost comedic in the way it mixes up different ideas about what ‘working class’ might mean.
So, no ‘studies’ at all have ‘shown’ that there are 25 working class MPs. That idea is made up. But wait! It gets much worse!
Some hard-bitten journos, perhaps those not brought up in council houses, will be going “bugger off, Joyce – manual-worker/working class is good enough for us”. OK, so let’s look at Criddle’s actual ‘manual worker’ figures. Criddle’s tables are produced after each election, so in theory there’s scope for longitudinal comparison. For example, much has been made of the fact that Criddle lists 25 current MPs as former manual workers, against 109 in 1951. Labour alone has gone down, apparently, from 108 to a mere 22. The Tories still have only one manual worker – Criddle says that’s Patrick McLoughlin, who was once a miner. In the books, Criddle doesn’t give his criteria for determining MPs’ previous occupations. The House of Commons briefings, however, helpfully do. A footnote runs:
“Members may have had multiple occupations before entering the House of Commons. Therefore Members are classified to different occupational groups based on what is judged to have been their main former occupation. Source: Information contributed by Byron Criddle and others to: David Butler, Dennis Kavanagh and others, The British General Election of … (1951-2010)”.
McLoughlin, who was a miner until a couple of years before he became a young MP is under Criddle’s ‘manual worker’ wire. So is David Hamilton MP, it seems. But hang-on, is he really? Hamilton stopped being a miner a full 17 years before he entered parliament and spent the last 8 years of that as chief executive of a public sector initiative. Grammar school and Durham University-educated Dave Anderson MP, who stopped being a miner 16 years before he entered parliament? Or how about the ‘working class’ MPs mentioned in the confused FT piece? Alan Johnson MP? Nope: as a former union offical he’s specifically excluded from Criddle’s list. Ian Lavery MP, a former president of the NUM? No again. David Davis, on the basis that he was brought up in a council house, like one or two hundred Labour MPs and quite a few other MPs of all other parties? Hardly. They don’t count.
Meanwhile, what of the figure of 108 Labour MPs from the 1951 that Criddle categorises as ‘manual workers’? This requires over a third of all Labour MPs elected in 1951 to have been essentially unskilled manual workers. Some commentators have noted the presence of working class MPs like Ernest Bevin. Sorry, he’s out – specifically excluded on the basis of having been a union official for two decades before becoming an MP. Nye Bevan? As someone who went to college then became an official before becoming a young MP, it’s not clear he qualifies for Criddle’s ‘manual worker’ list either. We don’t know who’s on that list. of course, and most people selected in 1951 would have been service personnel shortly beforehand, but Criddle’s ‘manual worker’ categorisation is looking long overdue for a bit of interrogation.
So, no ‘study’ of ‘working class’ MPs; no clear academic expression, even, of which or how many MPs were essentially manual labourers before entering parliament. Nothing at all. Just a meme.
But, not to worry. In response to this meme, the Labour Party has decided to include social class in its parliamentary selection parameters all the same. And here’s a piece from Professor Cowley’s department about how Ed Miliband is stressing the need for more ‘working class’ MPs. Here’s a good one, too. It’s Michael Meacher MP jumping on the bandwagon, literally making a whole load of things up and saying 60% of all potential parliamentary candidates should be working class. If you actually read what he’s committed to print, it’s amazing. He begins with reference to a study that never took place, refers to evidence that doesn’t exist then, hilariously, proposes a selection process that would require the Labour Party to categorise members as “proper working class” (a small minority if ‘unskilled manual worker’ is used as the test) or, “sorry, mate, you’re a toff”.
The fetishisation of a notion of ‘working class’ rooted in a different era, and the idiotic conflation of ‘unskilled manual worker” and ‘working class’, reveals a number of things. One is that the Labour party is nervous about being controlled by an aristocracy of former special advisers who come mainly from relatively privileged backgrounds and whose political trajectories have been heavily influenced by their closed social networks. Sounds a bit like, er……. Awkward. Another thing is that Unite the Union wants to use the ‘working class MPs’ riff as cover for putting more of its officials and friends into parliament. To be fair, in the context of the ‘aristocratic’ control, that doesn’t seem unreasonable.
The primary danger for Labour in encouraging this meme, though, is that it appears to be ascribing special worth, in 2013, to becoming an unqualified manual worker. Want to be an MP? Then don’t do well at school. Ignore your parents’ aspirations for you. Don’t acquire qualifications. Don’t upskill. Don’t get promotion. Don’t become a union official. Then we’ll find a special place for you. We’ll categorise you as ‘working class’ and patronise you by making regular aspirational people select you because they can’t know what you, as an unqualified manual worker, know. Michael Meacher’s on to it already.
Such a message is the epitome of intellectual and moral bankruptcy. It’s stinks of patronisation. It’s literally ridiculous.
And who’s listening to that message?