On February 28 2016, MP Dawn Butler shared an anecdote on Pinnear’s Politics on Radio Five Live that exposed not only the appallingly anachronistic attitudes held by some Westminster politicians, but also the lack of diversity within UK politics and its failure to be representative of the UK population.
In this incident, Butler, who is black, was assumed to be a cleaner by a fellow MP. Unfortunately, she stated that this was but one of many incidents of racism that she has faced since working at Westminster. Such incidents shed light on the enduring elitist attitudes that plague UK politics, despite an increasing awareness of and movement against the problem.
The UK political system is undeniably elitist, and as a result unrepresentative of the wider population. Currently, less than a third of MPs are female compared to 51 per cent of the UK population. Furthermore, black and ethnic minorities (BME) make up 13 per cent of the population, yet only six per cent of MPs. Only 40 per cent of MPs were educated in state comprehensive secondary schools, as compared to 88 per cent of the population.
Whilst these statistics represent an improvement from the 2010 election, Westminster still remains an institution apparently dominated by white, male, wealthy elites. A report produced by Quillam, a UK-based think-tank, suggests that this lack of diversity is seriously affecting the way that the three dominant parties target and treat BME voters.
Their findings concluded that the targeting of ‘bloc votes’ damages real engagement with voters of different minority groups. Typecasting and racism remain within UK political parties (as demonstrated by Butler’s experiences) and that in order to change the situation, instead on focusing on short term policies such as positive discrimination, parties need to examine underlying cultural issues in their organisational structures.
But can this really make a difference? It has been proven that the elitism present in UK politics is similarly prevalent in other hugely important institutions, such as the law, media, military, and civil service.
It is evidently not an issue that is exclusive to politics, suggesting that it is necessary to look beyond party organisation and focus on social mobility in our society as a whole. This, however, has to come from current politicians.
Arguably, until the elitist and unrepresentative nature of Westminster undergoes fundamental changes, our political structure cannot be described as legitimate. In the general election in 2015, only 66 per cent of UK citizens turned out, with the Conservatives gaining 37 per cent of the vote. This equates to less than a quarter of our population voting for the ruling party.
The difficulty that huge numbers of people have with identifying strongly with our political leadership is a factor in the disenfranchisement of the public that has led to pitiful voting turnouts in recent general elections. After all, why would black and ethnic minorities want to vote for, and be represented by, people who hold strong negative stereotypes of them, people such as the MP that mistook Dawn Butler for a cleaner?
The UK’s institutions are worryingly elitist, causing an enormous disparity between the representatives and the represented. Perhaps most disturbingly in politics, this appears to be causing a dangerous disengagement of the population with the pillars of our society that are supposedly for the benefit of everyone. Left behind is the paradoxical situation in which the people with the power to make change are reluctant to do so, for they are the ones who would benefit the least.