This is another insightful student guest post by First Year Politics and International Relations student Horatio Georgestone.
The cabinet is supposedly at the heart of our representative democracy in the UK. The best political talents are appointed by the Prime Minister to create policy that represents the best interests of our diverse society. The coalition cabinet comprises of Twenty-nine. Twenty-three cabinet members are millionaires (79%), twenty are Oxbridge educated (69%), twenty-five are male (86%), and twenty-eight are white (97%). This does not paint a picture that is in any way reflective of the diverse, British population that it intends to represent. However, does this lack of diversity prevent the cabinet from being an effective representative body? Does it actually matter if few cabinet ministers are from a working class background or that most of them are Oxbridge educated? Why isn’t the cabinet more diverse?
The common saying goes: “a doctor does not need to have malaria to be able to treat it”. True as this may be in a medical sense, does this actually follow in a political sense? Can a body of politicians effectively deal with the problems faced by a young teen growing up in a council estate in East London if none of them have ever experienced anything similar? Would plans to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) go ahead if there were many politicians who once relied on collecting it themselves? If the EMA had previously bought them stationary, paid for their transport, or incentivised their attendance at school; how many would still call for it to be scrapped? There is an increased use of think tanks and similar organisations to assess public opinion. However, can these organisations ever be an effective substitute to cabinet ministers actually having firsthand experience?
Is it increasingly difficult for a person of a non- Oxbridge educated, working class background to make it to the top of British politics? When John major became Prime Minister in 1990, it was an illustration that a person’s background could not prevent them from excelling in politics. It signified an era in British Politics where social mobility was rife; an age where someone who had not even gone to university could become Prime Minister. Two decades later, have we progressed or regressed in terms of social mobility? Are we seeing a greater number of cabinet ministers from working class backgrounds? Are women still under-represented within the cabinet? Is the cabinet being drawn from a wider range of ethnic groups? The composition of the current cabinet does not seem to suggest much progression.
In the last labour led cabinet, John Prescott and Alan Johnson were both cabinet ministers who had completed incredible personal journeys. Who would have predicted that Prescott, a working class boy who failed his 11+ exams in 1949, would go on to become Deputy Prime Minister? When Johnson was stacking shelves at Tesco or delivering mail as a postman, who would have guessed that one day he would be Home Secretary? The concern is that top flight of politics has become less accessible for people from a large section of society to reach and those who create policy are increasingly being drawn from a narrow social elite. The ensuing issue is this; can a narrow social elite effectively represent the best interests of a diverse modern British society?
Undoubtedly, the role of a Cabinet Minister is challenging. The world of economics and social policy is tricky and requires the selection of our best minds. Is it the case that the UK’s best minds all originate from a small section of society? Could it be that we do not have enough women, ethnic minorities or people of working class background with intellects that are up to the job? In reality, this is highly unlikely.
A more plausible argument may be that the system of selection favours people from a particular social group who have access to contacts. The party machine selects which candidates will contest safe seats and the Prime Minister appoints Cabinet Ministers. Perhaps a lack of connections plays an integral role in isolating candidates outside of a social elite, who find it difficult to network and obtain the contacts they need to progress in politics. Family ties and university ‘hook ups’ both play a part in boosting a person’s chances of rising through the ranks in politics. There is no question that ability will play a role in political progression. However, at the point where there are many talented competing candidates, having a few contacts certainly wouldn’t harm a candidate’s chances.
Returning to why we may require diversity amongst our representatives, I would say this. The study of politics can often lead to the reduction of citizens to rational actors; factors that fit into an intellectual exercise. In the pursuit of deficit reduction or efficiency savings it is possible for policy makers to overlook how citizens feel. There may be endless intellectual reasons why a specific proposal may be a good idea in theory, but in practise, the success of that proposal will depend on the feelings of the public that receive it. The coalition cabinet may feel that in theoretical terms, tackling the budget deficit quickly is the right thing to do. However, do they really understand how cutting so deep, so quickly has affected the most vulnerable in our society? Having a diverse mix of ministers who can personally relate with how sections of society will react to a particular policy could clearly be advantageous in establishing a cabinet that truly understands the public.
Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” concept illustrates the importance of policy makers being able to communicate with the public effectively. What could potentially be an interesting project, is failing precisely for the fact that the coalition cabinet has not been able to effectively convey what it means to the public. We live in an age where policy makers are able to release lots of information without really connecting with vast sections of society. There are so many means of relaying information, but what is lacking is the understanding of how to reach people. Losing someone like Andy Coulson who could genuinely relate to members of the wider public and recognised how to communicate with them must have been a big blow. The role of spin doctors is increasingly important when you have a cabinet that struggles to connect with the public.
The final advantage of having a more diverse cabinet may be the ability of wider sections of the public to identify with those who are at the top of British Politics. Not only does this give them an incentive to participate in the political system, it may inspire some to believe that one day it could be them in that position. Removing the stigma of top flight politics being reserved for a social elite may serve to increase respect for and trust in the political system amongst the wider public.
In closing, there may be benefit in a cabinet that is reflective of a diverse British public. It would be a strong indication of social mobility; and it would be useful in terms of issues relating to communication and identity. It is unclear why in the two decades since Major; the cabinet does not seem to have made much progress in terms of social mobility. Perhaps there are issues, other than ability that can act as an obstruction to political progression for some.