The Changing Commons
The Palace of Westminster is commonly referred to as the “Mother of Parliaments” and the “Cradle of Democracy.” But if parliamentary democracy is to have a concrete meaning; if it is a system of governing which all adults have a right to influence through the free exercise of the franchise then the UK is a relative newcomer to democracy and the aforementioned terms are misleading. The UK didn’t become a fully representative democracy until 1928 when all women over the age of 21 won the right to vote. The 1918 Representation of the People Act had extended the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification. The Act also abolished property and other restrictions for men, and extended the vote to all males over 21. (But the majority, around 60%, of males didn’t have the vote until the Third Reform Act of 1884.) Until 1919, when Lady Astor took her seat, the House of Commons was exclusively male. It wasn’t until 1929 therefore that all women and men could vote together in a general election for the first time. However, in spite of the fact that the struggle to win the vote for women was arduous, long and occasionally bloody, for the next fifty years women made up a tiny proportion of party candidates.
Between 1918 and 1979, for example, the proportion of women who stood as Labour candidates increased from 1% to 8% of the total. Conservative women candidates were even fewer in number; their proportion of all Conservative MPs between 1918 and 1979 increasing from 0% to just 5%. After 1979 the numbers of female Labour and Conservative candidates increased gradually at each election. At the 2010 general election, there was a record 190 Labour (30% of the total) and 151 Conservative women candidates (24% of the total), with 86 Labour and 48 Conservatives elected. There were also 134 Liberal Democrat women candidates (21% of the total), with just seven elected.
But the increase in female representation in the House of Commons, as welcome as it is, is not the most significant change to have happened. Male representation has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 50 years or so. It is often said that the Commons is run by an elite of former public school educated Oxbridge graduates. But the current House of Commons, elected in 2010, has fewer former public school educated Oxbridge graduates than that of the 1964 intake. In that year, 188 Oxbridge graduates were elected, including 121 Conservative and 60 Labour, compared with 157 in 2010, including 101 Conservative and 44 Labour. And in 1964 there were 132 public/private school educated Conservative Members, including 60 educated at either Eton or Harrow. Although the 2010 intake of public/private school educated Conservative Members remained high at 111, the number of former Eton and Harrow pupils had fallen to 23.
And there is a greater diversity of occupations represented in today’s House of Commons than was the case 50 years ago. As in 1964, lawyers (barristers/solicitors) are present in fairly large numbers, 59 Conservative and 44 Labour, as are former business men and ex-military officers, mostly on the Conservative benches. But unlike 1964, the current House of Commons can boast financial advisers, management consultants, marketing and public affairs officers and communication specialists among its Members, with the great majority on the Conservative benches. Banking and insurance is also more prominent among current Conservative Members (21 and 10 respectively), than among Labour Members (just two from banking). There are however 32 former lecturers and teachers on the Labour side compared to just three on the Conservative. And 29 trade union officials sit on the Labour benches; none on the Conservative. In 2010, a local government background appears to have been a good route to Westminster, with 56 former Councillors on the Conservative benches and 67 on the Labour.
Today’s Commons is also less polarised along class lines. In 1964, a substantial number of Conservative MPs came from the upper-middle and aristocratic class. Many of these had no recognised occupation before entering the Commons. This is much less the case today. Unlike 1964, the current Conservative benches include a number of Members from a working class background, educated at state schools and having workplace experience. In 1964, many Members on both sides of the House had served in the second world war and so could speak from direct experience on military matters, unlike some today who simply play at war, sending young men and women to unnecessary deaths. And there seems to be a distinct lack of sensitivity towards foreign civilian deaths among to-day’s Members. Collateral damage is the antiseptic term used to describe them.
An increasing number of voters are disillusioned with politics and politicians. Many feel they are not listened to or that their views are unrepresented. This is true particularly of voters in Labour-held seats. Some voters are turning to other parties, notably UKIP, or not voting at all. A major cause of this is the rapid change that has occurred over a relatively short period, certainly within the lifetime of elderly Labour voters. The decline of British industry gathered momentum during the 1980s under Thatcher. Traditional industries such as coal, steel and shipbuilding upon which many depended for employment began to disappear and hundreds of thousands of men—they were mostly men— became unemployed with little prospect of alternative work.
This de-industrialisation of Britain is reflected in the composition of the House of Commons, with fewer traditional, blue-collar, ‘working class’ jobs represented today. At the 2010 election, there were just sixteen Labour Members who had held such a job, only four of whom had been a miner. This is of course a reflection of the changed nature of the workplace, with blue-collar replaced by white-collar employment. In 1964, however, 105 Labour Members could claim to have been a docker, electrician, fitter or steelworker, and 20 were ex miners. Today, while the legal profession continues to be well represented on both sides of the House, as in 1964, increasingly the route to Parliament for aspiring Labour Members lies through education, political assistance, social work and ‘think tanks’. By contrast, banking, insurance and business, offer more or less guaranteed routes for aspiring Conservative Members.
The composition of the Commons has changed in another notable way. The political landscape in Northern Ireland and Scotland is no longer recognisable as the one that existed 50 years ago. In 1964, the Ulster Unionist Party was the dominant political force in the six counties of Ulster. Today, in spite of an increase in the number of seats, it is a spent force, having been replaced by the Democratic Unionist Party. In 1964, Sinn Fein was politically inactive in elections to Westminster. Today, it the first choice of many nationalists even though their MPs refuse to sit in the Commons. In Scotland in 1964, the Conservatives were heavily represented. Today, they are hanging by a thread, with just one seat. The political landscape in Wales on the other hand has remained largely unchanged, with Labour and the Conservatives holding on to most of the seats they won in 1964.
But what of the future? If Scotland votes to go independent this September the political landscape in England will change dramatically. Currently, there are 59 Westminster MPs in Scotland of which 41 are Labour. The loss of these seats after full independence in March 2016 will have a direct bearing on the political composition of the House of Commons. On past voting trends Labour will find it difficult to form a government. And Labour’s prospects could be further damaged when the proposals, under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600 are implemented. Unless there is a sea change in voting behaviour therefore the Conservatives will dominate English politics for years to come. Another effect of the loss of Labour seats in Scotland will be a further decline in working class Labour Members, of whom Scotland provides a high proportion from their total number. If Labour is to form a government in the future it is essential that it reconnects with its core working class vote. It has taken it for granted for too long and is now paying the price.