“Parliament today better reflects the gender balance and is more ethnically diverse, but in terms of educational and vocational background the new political elite look remarkably like the old establishment. It is surprising how many of our MPs were privately educated, went to Oxbridge and worked in the professions, particularly Conservatives and Lib Dems. It seems that our Parliament is becoming less representative in terms of education and occupation, and continues to attract similar types of people from a rather narrow professional base”. The Smith Institute
We are told in the UK that we should be proud of the fact that we are in one of the oldest democracies in the world. However, the UK political system is not really a democracy. Those in power mostly come from privileged families and attended private schools and attended universities that have an admissions system that is biased towards the wealthy, privileged upper classes.
“Just over 7% of British children are privately educated, yet over 40% of those at Oxford and Cambridge were.”
The Economist points out how Cambridge has an explicit target of 60% from state schools and that good students will do well whatever university they go to. They seem to miss the point (twice). Aiming for a tawdry 60% when 93% of excellent students will be from state schools indicates that there is something very wrong with the Oxbridge admissions system. Applicants that get to Oxbridge are (at the extremes perhaps) a combination of elite intellectuals from state schools who want to learn and public school kids who have been force fed education and feel it is their right to hold positions of power.
Those that stand for parliament are generally those that can afford it by dint of inheritance or good fortune. We have been caught up in an arms race between parties when it comes to election time that requires more and more money generally making party finances more important than their policies. At the top of the pile, the pretence of democracy vanishes and we find that large areas of the UK are owned and ruled by the landed gentry. It’s a bit more subtle than it was when lords had the right of jus primae noctis of virgins, took a share of their tenants earnings and could call them up to go to war but it’s still there.
I read a great paper recently – a recent re-incarnation of the “Peter Principle”. This is the fact that people generally get promoted to a point where they are less competent than they were when they were doing a lesser job. Take for example Universities. Here an academic will be promoted to the higher ranks on the basis of research. A good researcher isn’t necessarily and good manager but that is often the basis upon which they are promoted. The paper by Pulchino et al suggests that random promotion is more effective for organisational performance than performance by ability at a lower level.
The peter principle; ‘Every new member in a hierarchical organization climbs the hierarchy until he/she reaches his/her level of maximum incompetence’.
Similarly, politicians are elected on the basis of their performance in the polls – depending on how slick a campaign they can run, how much money they can raise to promote themselves, how charming they are in front of a crowd. While some of these skills are transferable to positions of high office, they are not features that give the voter a complete picture of the character and competence of the politician. There is a big difference between getting yourself elected and working in parliament. It is quite easy to think of democratically elected mistakes on both sides of the house and we know that there are many “safe seats” in the UK where if a monkey wore blue or red they would get elected to parliament.
Our current political system requires MPs to tow the party line, to adhere to a particular set of standards and avoid thinking for themselves. This is quite obvious when you see an MP closely questioned by a skilled interviewer. Here when faced with a difficult question where the audience is screaming at the telly/radio “Tell us what you think!”, we are often frustrated by bland, bland responses or skilful evasions of questions.
The solution, to me is obvious. Parliament should consist of 500-600 folk randomly selected from the population, associated with regions, and they should, by law be required to represent their fellow citizens for 5 years. There should be very few exceptions to who could be selected (children, criminals, the insane, terminally ill who do not wish to end their lives in parliament) and there should be no evading the requirement. I suggest that the “election” should replace half of the house every 2.5 years so that a certain amount of experience remains in place. Every member of parliament should be adequately recompensed and should have access to training and neutral advisors (civil servants).
There would be nutters, there would be folk that struggled to deal with the issues of the day, there would be bigots and racists, there would be folk that would seek to gain personal advantage, there would be incompetence, there would be those that just turned up for pay and there would be narcissistic, publicity seeking individuals.
No change there then.
Out of 600 randomly selected folk, there would also be highly motivated and intelligent folk, people that had a wide experience of a range of issues outside of the “public schoolboy goes to oxford and then Westminster” bubble. Just over half of the folk represented would be women, many would be young, 10 percent would be LGB and truly representative proportions would be black, Muslim, atheist, disabled etc.
Big change there.
But the critical difference would be that each person would be there for a limited term, they could choose, but not be forced, to align to a particular set of beliefs. After 5 years, no matter how good or poor they were, they would be returned to the general populace, a mite richer and a mite wiser. This would be a true democracy where the PEOPLE represented the PEOPLE, rather than the people being “represented” by the elite. We trust the public to adjudicate in sometimes complex legal cases, why not in every day life too?