TThe world has very recently become obsessed with the elites of society. But who are they? This used to be the central question in politics. As the franchise expanded over nearly two centuries, those in power were expected to come from an ever-widening pool. This belief grew stronger as political elites became more like the country they ruled. Between 1906 and 1916 the number of commoners in the cabinet eventually exceeded the number of aristocrats. In 1924, a Labor government saw working-class prime ministers.
However, the last research by academics at the University of Oxford on the social composition of cabinets and shadow cabinets suggests that progress has stalled, or even reversed. An article by sociologists Erzsébet Bukodi, Geoffrey Evans, John Goldthorpe and Matthew Hepplewhite examines in detail British political leadership from 1945 to 2021. Politics now resembles the 19th century, where two major parties, led by the upper castes, compete for votes . of a marginalized working class.
Their work attempts to highlight the differences, and convergences, between the two parties. While Conservative leaders often come from families that own or manage businesses, Labor politicians are more likely to grow up in professional homes. Conservatives have often previously worked in the private sector, in technical industries, while Labor politicians worked in “socio-cultural professions” in the public or charitable sector. The political elite has essentially become a elite graduates, with Conservatives being far more likely to attend Russell Group universities. So far, so familiar.
But what the study highlights is that the Conservatives have a class basis for their policies, which is not the case with Labor. The Oxford researchers argue that “the increasing proportion of (Conservative) cabinet members from small business ownership backgrounds suggests that there is a social basis for a more right-wing stance on economic and social issues”, while in Labor leadership, there has been an almost “complete disappearance of those who have their own adult experience of working-class life and who could thus be seen as more committed to serving the interests of the working class”. There are a few glaring exceptions: Angela Rayner grew up in a council estate and worked as a care worker before becoming a Labor MP. But this trend, evident since 1997, has certainly pushed the working class to vote. abstention in the general elections.
Labour’s dilemma is that the traditional industrial working class has almost disappeared from Britain, either due to low-cost competition or its displacement by automation. It is rather in the service sector that we find the working class today. They were mobilize, and organize, but not to the extent that they can exert sufficient political pressure. The Labor Party has looked to “progressive” professionals for its survival. Under Sir Keir Starmer, the Oxford study suggests, there has also been a return to the “Blairist view” that Labour’s image as a party of the working class costs votes. This seems like a mistake in a time of economic insecurity.
Flattening socio-economic hierarchies is part of the Labor Party’s historic responsibility. Celebration will have to argue that its economic policies can mitigate the worst excesses of globalization that affect both workers and professionals, as well as to counter the snake-oil sales pitches of the populist radical right. Only time will tell if Labor will succeed.