Last week Policy Exchange published a report setting out the dearth of those from ‘intermediate’ and ‘routine and manual’ occupations among the most powerful positions in contemporary public life – magistrates, politicians, senior political positions and the selection panels for such positions.  

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey 2013, 61% of the population self-identify as being working class yet among MPs the number from manual-working backgrounds stands at roughly 25, 4% of the total crop and a fall of 73 since 1979.  Even more shockingly, the number of those from routine and manual occupations acting as local magistrates is so low that it needs to increase by more than 873% above their present number before they reach parity with their percentage in the general population.   

The argument that for such posts advanced training and specific qualifications are a pre-requisite does not stand up to scrutiny.  The dearth of working class appointees is a feature of numerous appointments for which there is no such requirement, while robust research suggests that lower qualification levels are themselves a direct consequence of growing up in a low-income household; poorer children do less well academically in part because they are poorer not just because they happen to be growing up in poverty.

This lack of representation goes hand in hand with the current lack of public trust in government and political parties.   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.   

There is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that high levels of inequality lead to lower levels of trust and indeed the OECD has voiced concern that the growth in inequality since the 1970s has intensified the lack of trust in politicians.   The most accepted explanation is that inequality increases the social distance between members of the same society and exacerbates perceptions of difference which in turn undermines trust in and the formation of relationships across society.    

Inequality may have declined recently, but with political and judicial power concentrated in so few hands and so many feeling their income squeezed there is an increasing sense of social and economic distance.   As our representatives look and act increasingly less like ourselves and growing numbers are excluded from full participation in public life, trust ebbs away.  Nudging employers and applicants in the direction of greater diversity against a background of such stark social divides will do little to rectify the status quo. Only by addressing inequality can we ever hope to tackle the root of the problem.

Maddy Power, Senior Research and Policy Advisor