Socialist Worker

Where are the workers in Labour’s leadership?

Labour Party member and anti-poverty campaigner Bob Holman argues that the party’s leadership candidates are wealthy Oxbridge careerists – and not part of the working class

Issue No. 2217

Members of the Labour Party are about to elect their new leader.

Labour MPs, who initially nominate the candidates, have selected five wealthy, career politicians for us to choose between.

None are working class in the sense of having extensive experience of working alongside working class people. None are usually recognised as socialists.

And all five reached their position via a posh Oxford or Cambridge—“Oxbridge”—university education.

Keir Hardie, a trade union official raised in poverty who became one of the main founders of the Labour Party, visited an Oxford college in 1895.

He said, “Most of them will know as little of the real life and feelings of the common people as if they did not exist.”

At the time, most MPs were from the Conservative and Liberal parties.

Many had attended private schools and Oxbridge.

Hardie and his colleagues built the Labour Party to represent the interests of working class people.


Yet in the general election this May, the number of working class MPs declined—while the proportion from Oxbridge rose to an astonishing 30 percent of all MPs.

The election did see a slight increase in women MPs and MPs from ethnic minorities.

However, the Sutton Trust identified a rise in the number of career MPs—those affluent enough to afford to work for the comparatively low salaries of researchers and MPs’ assistants, which serve as a lever to a seat for themselves.

Among the 23 members of the Tory-Liberal coalition cabinet, 15 went to Oxbridge and 12 to private schools.

And the Labour Party follows the trend of privilege.

One in five of its MPs are now drawn from this pool. Only a minority of its MPs come from the working class.

And it’s not just parliament where Oxbridge dominates. Outside the Commons, you find completely disproportionate numbers across the media and other powerful institutions.

But you might ask: “So what?” After all, surely people who get into top universities are very able and clever, right?

But this elite is drawn from just 2 percent of all university students—and a tiny fraction of the population.

Half the entrants to Oxbridge come from just 200 schools—mainly private ones.

Those who come from outside the private sector tend to come from what the Sutton Trust calls “a small cadre of exclusive state schools”.


Very few poor people are allowed. A mere 0.88 percent of Oxbridge students come from households earning less than £25,000 a year.

Of course, a handful of working class pupils are given places as a kind of token that it is “open to all”.

On this basis, Oxbridge graduates often claim that their domination is justified because they are the most intelligent.

Jeremy Paxman explains, “Oxford and Cambridge are the finest universities in Europe. They therefore attract some brilliant students.

“Only someone whose chip was so big that it completely obscured their eyes would be surprised—or consider it undesirable—that these two universities contribute lots of people to some of the most prominent areas of British life.”

Paxman does not seem to understand that intelligence is spread throughout society—and that the vast majority do not attend Oxbridge.

Giving this elite easy access to “prominent areas” excludes working class people of equal or greater brilliance.

The result is a society dominated by a narrow elite.

It might be expected that the Labour Party would be in the forefront of combating such discrimination. Not so.

The power of Oxbridge within the party means that many Labour seats are held by those brought up in privilege and affluence.

This in turn ensures that working class people are under-represented.

That is not democratic—and not socialist.

I do not advocate a total ban on Oxbridge MPs. Clement Attlee went to public school and Oxbridge, yet became our greatest prime minister.

The difference was that Attlee worked for years in the East End of London, and hence both understood working class life and appreciated the need for working class MPs.


Many socialists have left the Labour Party. But this is our party, founded by the likes of Keir Hardie.

I shall remain—and I hope others will rejoin—in order to fight for reform. In the long term we must work for a more equal society in general.

Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, Allen Lane, 2009) establishes that more equal societies are more contented and less divided.

But right now, who will I vote for as Labour leader?

I shall write on my ballot paper: “None of the above”.

It is my protest that, as a Labour Party member for nearly 50 years, I have no option to vote for a leader who is working class, a socialist—and has not reached the Commons via a system of privilege.

It’s on: voting starts this week

Leadership contest ballot papers will go out to Labour Party members—and trade union members who pay the Labour levy—from this Wednesday.

The candidates are:

  • Ed Miliband (Corpus Christi College, Oxford)
  • David Miliband (Corpus Christi College, Oxford)
  • Ed Balls (Keble College, Oxford)
  • Andy Burnham (Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge)
  • Diane Abbott (Newnham College, Cambridge)

Bob Holman is the author of Keir Hardie, Labour’s Greatest Leader? Lion Hudson, 2010

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Article information

Tue 31 Aug 2010, 16:50 BST
Issue No. 2217
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