Enter the comprehensive generation

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Colin Mellors and Darren Darcy on the new face of Parliament

The voice of education in politics has never been stronger than in the new House of Commons. But far more significant than the number of teachers cramming on to the famous green benches is the changing educational and social background of our MPs.

Public schools and Oxbridge are out, and state schools and redbrick universities are in. The grammar school boy is gradually being replaced by the comprehensive school girl. These are among the key findings to emerge from a detailed study of the 659 MPs elected last Thursday.

With the fortysomethings now in control of the party, the educational backgrounds of those on the Labour benches mirrors the changes of the 1960s. The decline of grammar schools, introduction of comprehensives, and increased participation in higher education are evident in the parliamentary class of 97.

Although Tony Blair captured the mood of the electorate, in terms of educational experience he differs from the profile of his party at Westminister. His own public school and Oxbridge background is untypical of those he now leads, where a state school education - increasingly in a non-selective comprehensive school - followed by redbrick university is more commonplace.

Within the parliamentary Labour party, the proportion who attended a comprehensive is now only slightly lower than those with public school backgrounds. For new Labour MPs, the figures are even closer, and by the next election, those with a comprehensive school background may well outnumber those from public schools on Labour's Westminister benches. At present, however, the largest group (40 per cent) are still from grammar schools.

In 1945, more than 80 per cent of Conservative MPs and 20 per cent of Labour MPs had attended public school. The figures for 1997 are 65 per cent and 14 per cent respectively. Comprehensive schools account for 12 per cent of Labour MPs.

University graduates continue to flourish at Westminster. In l945 one-third of Labour MPs and two-thirds of Conservative MPs were graduates. This election the proportions have risen to 72 per cent on the Labour benches and 80 per cent on the Conservative side, with a further 10 per cent and 11 per cent respectively having undertaken some other form of post-school further or higher education. Indeed, the House of Commons is perhaps one of the few organisations that already comfortably meets the last government's national education and training targets.

Youth will also be well-represented in Parliament. The victory in Shipley of the country's youngest MP, 24-year-old Christopher Leslie, over 69-year-old Tory grandee Sir Marcus Fox epitomised the generational change.

Although the overall average ages of MPs has not changed much - Labour (49), Conservatives (50) and Liberal Democrat (47) - there is a large number of younger members with 92 MPs under 40.

However, the most notable change in the social composition of the House arises from the doubling of the number of women members, up from 60 in 1992 to 120 this election. In part this increase reflects Labour's former policy of having all-women shortlists in a proportion of winnable constituencies. All 34 women selected by this process were successful.

Although the proportion of women MPs still falls short of that of several north European legislatures, it represents a leap from 1979 when there were just 19 women members.

As might be anticipated, most women (102) are on Labour's benches, where they comprise almost 25 per cent of the parliamentary party. By contrast, there are only 13 Conservative women, representing a meagre 8 per cent of the parliamentary party.

The academic profession again fared well - a further 46 former teachers and lecturers joined the 77 who held their seats. All but six of these will sit on Labour's benches.

The route from classroom or lecture theatre to Parliament is well-trodden, especially for Labour, where teachers and lecturers have steadily displaced manual workers as the core of the parliamentary Labour party during the post-war period. The chalkface has replaced the shopfloor and coalface as the training ground for Labour MPs.

When Clement Attlee came to power in 1945, 28 per cent of Labour MPs were former manual workers, compared with the 12 per cent drawn from the academic professions. By the time of the last Wilson victory, in October 1974, the proportions were almost precisely reversed. In Blair's parliamentary party, former manual workers account for 37 of the 419 MPs.

In 1974 Dennis Skinner wrote of the "plethora of smooth-tongued, generally tall, dark, handsome men (not women) percolating and permeating their way around the slag-heaps, up and down the terraced rows of colliery houses and into the miners' welfare in search of safe parliamentary seats".

Now many more women have found their place in political life, but new Labour has become more distanced from its working-class roots.

Among Labour's 1997 newcomers, the single most common occupational description is political organiser and researcher. For the first time "politicos" outnumber both schoolteachers and lecturers among Labour's new cohort.

In the past, local government has been an important stepping stone to Westminster for loyal and long-serving Labour party activists and the link between town hall and the House of Commons has been further strengthened at this election.

Two-thirds of Labour MPs have served as local councillors. Among the new intake of Labour members the proportion rises to 70 per cent. A few of these have effectively been full-time local politicians.

Even if their presence on the party's backbenches has been slightly diluted, however, the ranks of the ex-teachers and lecturers include many leading Labour figures - Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, David Blunkett, Ann Taylor, Mo Mowlam and David Clark. John Major's Cabinet contained three MPs from the groves of academe; in the new Blair Cabinet, this figure has increased to nine.

Colin Mellors is professor of political science and pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Bradford. Darren Darcy is lecturer in politics at the same university

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