I was very struck by the article We’re Not All in This Together by Mehdi Hassan in the New Statesman.
Hassan informs us that 22 out of 29 cabinet ministers (76 per cent) are millionaires: Philip Hammond’s net worth is £7.5 million, George Osborne £4.6m, Jeremy Hunt £4.5m and Iain Duncan Smith £1 million.
The pattern is replicated throughout the present government. The Topshop boss Philip Green (£4.4bn), whose wife lives in the tax haven of Monaco, has been put in charge of cutting government “waste”. The former BP chief executive Lord Browne (£45m) has been appointed as the lead non-executive on the Cabinet Office board while the banker Stephen Green (pension pot: £19.1m), outgoing chairman of HSBC, is to join the coalition as a trade minister in December.
In fact, Britain has not been governed by politicians representing such a narrow social base since Harold Macmillan’s administration in the late 1950s.
This matters. It matters not because 66 percent of Cabinet ministers were educated at private schools or because over three quarters of the Cabinet are extremely rich per se. It matters because extremely wealthy Conservatives know nothing of life as it is lived by the overwhelming majority of the British people.
With the average wage at just under £25,000 a year and an estimated 288,000 people paid below the minimum wage of £5.93 an hour, most people are a million miles away from the millionaire lifestyle.
Self evidently we are not governed by men (and a few women) who share our worries and concerns and possibly have no idea about what makes us happy and what makes us sad.
And this is even more true for Conservative MPs who are millionaires for the very simple reason that many safe Tory seats are prosperous, reflecting the lifestyle of their MPs. Yes, of course there are pockets of poverty and deprivation in Runnymede (Philip Hammond) and Chingford (Iain Duncan Smith), but such deprivation is limited and unlikely to affect Conservative majorities.
This is very different from Labour MPs seats. Safe Labour constituencies are never well off, constituents face unemployment and welfare benefits are essential for many of those represented by Labour MPs. Moreover Labour MPs see all of this at their surgeries. This means that even though MPs are in the top 10 percent of national earnings and some Labour MPs had privileged upbringings, those representing the vast majority of safe Labour seats see with their own eyes what life for most people in Britain is really like.
The importance of this first-hand experience should never be underestimated. I first became fully aware of what poverty means when I was Chief Executive of the lone parent charity Gingerbread. Contrary to the pervasive stereotype, the overwhelming majority of single parents are not feckless teenage girls getting pregnant to secure a Council flat, but women in their 20s, 30s and 40s bringing up children on their own as a result of divorce, desertion or death. Most Gingerbread members lived on benefits, many were unable to afford even a telephone and almost all bought their children second hand clothes.
Although I had never lived on benefits I came to realise what poverty is about. Somehow I doubt whether Messrs Osborne and Hunt have done the same kind of thing.
Millionaires truly lack any idea of life outside the very small circle of the very rich and since 76 percent of the Cabinet are millionaires they are utterly unrepresentative. This is extremely bad news for a democracy.
I truly believe our Parliament should be made up of a representative sample of the British people, including proportionate numbers of women and ethnic minorities. The Cabinet should also be representative and its members know what life is like for the majority of those they govern. The Cameron-Clegg (both of whom are also very rich) government self-evidently does not meet the representative test. It is therefore not truly democratic.
I believe the reason why George Osborne has felt free and able to cut back so drastically on welfare and social housing is that his government quite simply does not understand lives other than their own and can therefore make ideological cuts with no constraints of compassion or empathy. Lack of proper representation at the highest level is consigning more and more people to poverty, ghettoised housing with the very real danger of the kind of crime and anti-social behaviour that goes with what used to be called “social ills”.