Guest blog: Professor Philip Cowley – Age and the politics of presence

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All the mainstream British political parties are – to varying degrees – now signed up to the underlying principle that political institutions should broadly reflect the social characteristics of the people they represent.  David Cameron’s very first speech as party leader in 2005 contained the claim that ‘We will change the way we look’. Ed Miliband has made several speeches on the same theme.  The idea that what Anne Phillips called ‘the politics of presence’ is important is now a widely, if not wholly, accepted part of political discourse in the UK.

Early concern about the politics of presence focussed almost entirely on social class.  But class then fell largely off the agenda, both in ‘real world’ and academic debates, to be replaced, first, by sex, and then, second, by ethnicity. All the main British political parties are committed to schemes to ensure that a greater number of women are elected as MPs (although these schemes vary in their strength and utility); there are also efforts (again, of varying strength and utility) to do something similar with the representation of ethnic minorities. Until very recently almost all senior British politicians speaking on this subject would mention both groups routinely, but with (at most) a passing reference to, some usually unspecified, ‘other groups’.

One retort to such concerns is to say that the voters are not interested – that all they want is the ‘best person for the job’ (a formulation that curiously appears to deliver a disproportionately high number of white, middle class, middle-aged men).  But in fact there is good evidence to suggest that many voters do care, and do indeed want to see a more diverse Commons.

In an article published recently in the journal British Politics, and drawing on several surveys of the public, I examined the public’s attitudes to their MPs – and who they would like in Parliament.  The article is (currently) free to download. Academic articles normally require a small mortgage to download, so my advice: get it while it’s free, even if you don’t read it till later (or ever).

One of the characteristics examined was age.  When it came to views about one’s own MP, age was seen as very unimportant.  On a scale from 0 (not at all important) to 10 (very important), the importance of having an MP of roughly the same age as you scored an average of just 1.5.  It was one of the least important characteristics tested.  Nor did this alter by the age of the respondent: those aged between 18 and 35 scored 1.4; those between 36 and 55 1.5, and those aged 55 or over 1.4.

But things were different when the data on parliament as a collective was examined.  Here respondents were given the choice of ‘a lot more’, ‘a little more’, ‘same as there currently is’, ‘a little less’, and a ‘lot less’, plus a Don’t Know option.  The table below shows the net score of those who wanted more minus those who wanted less of each of the groups.

To what extent do you believe that parliament should have more or fewer… (net scores)

MPs who come from the area they represent

+80

Working-class MPs

+58

Female MPs

+50

MPs with disabilities

+46

Young MPs

+44

Black and ethnic minority MPs

+29

Christian MPs

+14

Gay and lesbian MPs

+3

Muslim MPs

-6

MPs of pensionable age

-21

 

As the table shows, there were clear effects with both young and old MPs.  In terms of the former, there was a desire to see more young MPs.  This scored +44, about the same priority as people give to having more women MPs and more disabled MPs.  This desire was especially strong amongst those aged between 18-35 themselves, where it scored +65.  In terms of the elderly, the effect was the opposite: more respondents wanted to see a reduction in their numbers rather than an increase.  The desire to see fewer MPs of pensionable age was less strong amongst the elderly themselves (a score of -13 amongst those aged 55 or over), but even amongst this group more people wanted to see fewer of the group at Westminster than to see an increase.

The survey included a series of questions asking respondents to estimate the percentage of MPs who belonged to certain groups.  The public were fairly accurate about some groups – women, for example – but wildly inaccurate about others.  At a time when there were only four Muslim MPs, the average estimate of 14% would have represented some 90 MPs.  The precise number of gay and lesbian MPs might be debatable, but the average estimate of 18% would have represented some 116 MPs. The public also considerably over-estimated both the number of young and older MPs.  At the time of the survey, the over-60s made up 31% of MPs; the mean estimate was 51%.  The reality was that those under 30 made up just 1% of the Commons; the mean estimate was 16%.  In other words, one reason they wanted to see fewer older MPs was because they thought there were so many of them already.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham

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