Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How do we get a parliament that looks more like Britain?

Given the recent controversy over the European selections, it was not surprising that this session of the Progress conference led to a stimulating discussion. An eclectic panel of Michael Meacher MP, Oona King, Kirsty McNeill, Steve Hart and Sadie Smith started the debate.

Michael Meacher said that, while Tory MPs are representative of their core constituency of being drawn from the professional and managerial classes of accountants, bankers, lawyers and doctors, the Labour party was appalling at representing its core vote of working people. While the party has been very successful at increasing the number of women MPs, and MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds, the PLP is dominated by university educated middle-class professional people. Michael felt that mentoring and support for candidates was crucial, and commended Progress for organising training sessions for aspiring PPCs.

Michael suggested that in the Westminster selection process wards and affiliates should be able to interview candidates, and not just rely on reading CVs, and that panels drawing up the shortlist should consist of at least one-third women and one third working-class as represented by the trade unions. The latter suggestion raises an interesting question of whether trade union members are synonymous with working-class people. Tom Flynn, a member of the audience, argued that when he worked for a union his salary was comparable to many ‘middle class’ jobs. Later in the debate, Kirsty McNeill reminded people that the majority of working-class people working in the private sector did not belong to unions!

When she became an MP in 1997, Oona felt that she had never seen an institution so unrepresentative of the British people as Westminster. Oona talked very passionately about how class is ignored as an equality issue, and how the lack of financial resources directly and indirectly excludes people from modest backgrounds from becoming an MP. The ‘bank of mum and dad’ enables some young people to work unpaid for MPs and thinktanks, which is increasingly the route to Westminster. She argued that we have to look at the ‘talent pipeline’. Very few people in ordinary jobs could take 13 weeks to do a parliamentary selection – thankfully the NEC has just reduced the timetable to eight weeks. Sadie Smith felt that the time commitment – both to get selected and elected – would discourage ‘normal people’ who had careers in fields unrelated to politics.

I think Steve Hart, political director of Unite, was surprised that Progress was having such a discussion, and even more surprised to have been invited! Steve said that he was encouraged that Progress members were seriously interested in making parliament more representative. His union has a clear political strategy to develop and support their members to become involved in the Labour party and become councillors and MPs, particularly people who are shop stewards and have developed great negotiation and advocacy skills.

There are many myths around selections which need dispelling, and party activists need to stop moaning and take action, was the central message from Kirsty McNeill. Kirsty fought Bermondsey in 2005 and as a former special adviser, student union politician and PPE graduate, represents all the characteristics of MPs that people are currently complaining about, yet she was strongly backed by her union, Unite, and Bermondsey was her home seat.

Kirsty has trained hundreds of women through Labour Women’s Network. Kirsty explained that there are three main factors that determine who wins selections. First, local members select candidates, not the party leadership, and people overwhelmingly select people who look like current MPs – politics is no different to the culture of major companies, universities, central and local government, where leadership replicates itself. There is a very strong Labour party culture which is about turning up – and members who work the double shift at Tesco can’t always turn up every Saturday morning to knock on doors. Second, we think people get priced out of selections because of money, but the critical success factor is networks. By the time party members who have been active in student politics and worked at Westminster go for seats they have 15 years of accumulated social and political networks to draw on. Third, the idea that former special advisers are guaranteed seats is a myth – but what they do have is resilience, the ability to try, try, and try again until they succeed. Many candidates from non-traditional backgrounds become discouraged after the first or second attempt and give up.

Kirsty urged everyone present to work on solving the problem rather than moaning about it! Being an MP is a huge privilege and should be a rigorous process. She encouraged members to join LWN, Operation Black Vote and support the Diversity Fund; to follow talented people on Twitter; to share power by inviting aspiring candidates to events and giving them opportunities to raise their profile, and most importantly, to encourage and support candidates to putting themselves forward.

Paul Wheeler reminded everyone that we shouldn’t ignore local government as cabinet members have more power than backbench MPs to change their communities. Oldham council has set up a political apprenticeship programme to enable young people to develop their political skills and knowledge, and one graduate of the programme has gone on to join Oldham’s cabinet.

I asked the panel whether the Labour party should introduce a requirement that prospective parliamentary candidates should have had at least five years experience in an ordinary job outside the ‘Westminster village’. I argued that such a change would send a strong signal that party wanted future MPs to have been successful in fields other than as special advisers, public affairs consultants and full time trade union officials. Steve Hart thought candidates should have 10 years’ experience outside politics; Oona and Sadie liked my proposal in principle but thought it would be difficult to implement, and Kirsty said that it was a very bad idea, partly because party staff who work long hours for modest salaries shouldn’t be debarred from standing.

Midway through the meeting, Steve Hart ‘outted’ the panel as all being educated at Oxford, Cambridge and York. Marvin Rees, Labour’s candidate for mayor of Bristol, simply explained that we shouldn’t assume people with Oxbridge degrees are all from privileged backgrounds. He was brought up in a single-parent family in difficult circumstances and is a Cambridge graduate. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the majority of Oxbridge-educated Labour MPs went to comprehensive schools. Sharon Hodgson MP described her journey to Westminster through the trade union movement and her hopes that her daughter will go a Russell group university. Sharon rightly feels that this should count in her daughter’s favour if she wanted to become active in politics.

To have a parliament that looks like Britain we need to follow Gandhi’s wise words and be the change we want to see in the world. As party members if we want to see more women, people from BME backgrounds and people who haven’t had the opportunity to go to university to become MPs, we need to encourage, support, fund and vote for them in Labour party selections. We should also never lose sight of the fact that simply electing more Labour MPs would make parliament more representative. Labour is far better than either the Tories or Lib Dems at electing people from diverse backgrounds to become MPs.


Sally Prentice is cabinet member for culture and leisure on Lambeth council. She tweets at @SallyPrentice. Sally’s other articles can be found at


Photo: G Crouch

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Sally Prentice

is a councillor in the London borough of Lambeth. She tweets @SallyPrentice

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