Would there be a cost-of-living crisis if parliament was more working-class?
A recent study revealed that just one in 100 MPs come from working-class backgrounds. Perhaps this is why politicians can't wrap their heads around how to truly help the British public.
It’s been a wild ride in politics recently. To deflect from her incompetence as prime minister, the Trussbot put the blame on her pal Kwasi Kwarteng by sacking him as chancellor after the mini-budget controversy, replacing him with the less toxic Jeremy Hunt. But Hunt’s unifying image was short-lived. Within a few days, he not only announced a near-complete reversal of the mini-budget, but also that the energy price freeze will end in April. To top it all off, it’s rumoured that backbenchers are itching to stage a rebellion against the prime minister and her doomed leadership.
The moribund mini-budget, alongside the cost-of-living crisis, may be the nail in the coffin for this government. As desperate Britons dig deeper into their pockets to deal with worsening living standards, our establishment class of politicians in government and on the backbenches have offered paltry offerings on how to overcome economic hardship. The problem isn’t a lack of radical solutions to avert these crises, whether that’s a Green New Deal to cool a burning planet or a whopping tax on billionaires to redistribute wealth. Our government simply doesn’t care enough.
Why? Perhaps it’s because only one in 100 MPs come from humble working-class beginnings, according to a recent study. This may explain the lack of empathy for the half of UK households braced for a bleak winter. Having been raised in grand mansions and the classrooms of Eton, MPs simply can’t picture the grim reality that millions face. It begs the question: would the cost-of-living crisis be as catastrophic if there were more politicians from working-class backgrounds?
Well, it’s not that straightforward. It’s clear that MPs’ biggest motivator when it comes to pushing policies through is keeping ridiculously wealthy corporations on side. Liz Truss’s leadership campaign received donations from the former spouse of an exec at BP, for example, which has boasted record profit margins throughout the energy crisis. It’s no wonder Truss ignores the public’s cries to alleviate energy bills and courts the corporate fat cats who funded her path to the premiership instead.
And it often seems that MPs from working-class backgrounds don’t mind petting those fat cats either. Take “working-class” Tory Maria Caulfield, who tweeted that she has “no problem” with cutting the cap on bankers’ bonuses as it does not fall on the backs of the taxpayer. Maybe Caulfield missed the memo that working-class households have seen wages spiral under inflation, on top of the pound collapsing every time Truss speaks. The optics aren’t great when exorbitantly wealthy financiers reap the benefits of economic turmoil by taking home even more cash.
The Tories aren’t solely to blame for British politics’ class blindspot, though. The son of a nurse and a toolmaker, Keir Starmer recently emphasised his own working-class background during his party conference speech, but his policies are still beholden to the big businesses he has fought hard to win over. As Oliver Eagleton’s polemic The Starmer Project reveals, bankers and business moguls donated thousands to his 2020 leadership campaign. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Labour under Starmer saw the highest presence of corporations since 2010 at that same party conference in September. At the other end of the spectrum, just this week, two working-class, grassroots candidates were blocked from Labour’s selection shortlist.
But there are a number of officials working to solve parliament’s revolving door of the wealthy and privately educated, who are truly invested in representing the interests of working-class people. Labour left stalwart and Red Wall MP Ian Lavery is one of them, having started his political career in the National Union of Mineworkers in the ‘80s.
“As one of the few MPs who comes from a working-class background, and certainly one of the only few who comes from a background of manual labour, I have long been campaigning and working on bringing more people from similar backgrounds into politics,” he says. In 2020, Lavery founded the No Holding Back scheme with fellow Red Waller John Trickett and former parliamentarian Laura Smith, which aims to increase representation of working-class politicians by promoting “all working-class shortlists for MP selections, as well as working alongside trade unions in community organising efforts to get working class people involved in politics at grassroots level.”
Lavery is well aware that the class imbalance is not just a Tory problem. He also knows that a person’s economic background doesn’t always necessarily align with their politics. Countering Caulfield and Starmer’s working-class credentials, he points to the examples of former prime minister Clement Attlee and Labour’s founder Keir Hardie, both from wealthy families, to reference the party’s cross-class appeal. “The party has always been based on a finely balanced alliance between the working and middle class in an effort to achieve economic and social justice,” he says. “But this balance has shifted too far to the side of the middle classes in recent years and work must be done to address it. There are far too few Keir Hardie’s left in the Labour Party today and that cannot be a good thing.”
Labour’s recent conference was lauded for being controversy-free, but the party’s ambitions to integrate itself into unequal class structures exposes conflicts over what the party ultimately stands for under Starmer. Meanwhile, Caulfield’s ill-advised remarks, together with her since-deleted tweets that criticised the mini-budget as “not Tory at any cost”, shows the double standard of aligning working-class solidarity with the endorsement of capitalism. Her comments follow Lee Anderson’s, a working-class Conservative elected in 2019, who blamed record levels of food poverty on those who do not have the right cooking skills.
It’s clear parliament is riddled with those who fail to speak up for or fully grasp the situation unfolding for millions across the country. A parliamentary culture that answers to corporate elites is the main driving force when it comes to policy-making. It’s not just politicians from wealthier backgrounds that are the crux of the problem; too few working-class politicians are willing to stand by their roots.
Amid a cost-of-living crisis, the gap between parliament and the people is stark. To quote the Trussbot herself, everything is “wrong, wrong, wrong”.