A statement we’re likely to hear a lot over the next few months is that our politicians are unrepresentative of ordinary people. They come from different backgrounds, go to different schools and live very different lives to the average woman on the street. But is this fair, is it accurate and does it really matter?

Yesterday’s report from the Sutton Trust, ‘Parliamentary Privilege’, will do little to convince people of politicians’ ‘everyman’ credentials. It finds that 31% of parliamentary candidates have attended private school – compared with just 7% of the UK population; 19% of candidates graduated from Oxford or Cambridge universities – compared with less than 1% of the general population; 55% of candidates attended Russell Group universities – compared with around 10% of the general population; and a quarter of candidates have come from primarily political careers.

By anyone’s standards, it’s hard to argue that politicians lead similar lives to the rest of us. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, after all it’s surely unfair to claim that without living in poverty, or even on an average salary, one is unable to understand and empathise with those who have.

The problem for politicians is that this doesn’t really matter. People vote for parties and individuals they believe share their values, beliefs and concerns. It’s hard for politicians to talk of their ‘story of self’ and connect with voters when that story is so unrecognisable to most people. It’s even harder for privately educated politicians to demonstrate they are ‘one of us’ when, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 61% of the population self-identify as being working class.

This should be of huge concern to them. If last year featured one prominent theme in political and public debate, it was inequality. Over the past year an increasing number of economists, business leaders, international organisations and politicians have warned of the dangers of the UK’s extreme levels of inequality. Many politicians have also talked of their commitment to tackling it. But when  their policies do little to achieve this, and they’re sitting nearer the top of the pile than the bottom (as most are), it doesn’t sound too convincing.

British people have had a rocky relationship with their politicians for some time, but trust in politicians has undoubtedly fallen.  Since 1987, there has been a fall of 20% in the number saying they trust government ‘just about always (or) most of the time’ and today, 13% more people believe ‘it’s not really worth voting’ than they did 20 years ago.  Over the past year voter party loyalty appears to have diminished to an all-time low. Inequality is an important concern for many voters, but the ‘political class’ is increasingly regarded as part of a ruling elite with little understanding or concern for voters and their everyday lives, including the need to reduce the gap between the richest in society and the rest of us.

Today’s report speaks to that concern, as it shows that far from being a land of opportunity, Britain is returning to a time of inherited privilege, where your parents’ backgrounds and wealth are the best measure of your  future success. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that inequality is not only a symptom of this social immobility, but one of its drivers, with higher inequality associated with lower social mobility when looking at both children and adults.

As with most threats, this also represents an opportunity. A platform of inequality reduction is a vote winner. Over 80% of people agree the gap between rich and poor is too great. Nearly 70% of people believe that it is the Government’s job to reduce this gap. If this isn’t enough, politicians should at least recognise that it is going to become increasingly difficult for them to portray themselves as interested with the concerns of voters without promoting policies to reduce extreme inequality. 

John Hood, Media and Communications Manager