There’s always discussion about how many members of the Cabinet went to Oxbridge (half of them) or how many Prime Ministers went to Oxford (26) or Cambridge (14) or how many this century didn’t go to university at all (4 including Winston Churchill who went to military school). But what, I hear you ask, about Birkbeck?

Well, we have a Prime Minister too. Not just any Prime Minister either. We have as a former student Ramsey MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. He was later head of another Labour government from 1929-1931 and a national coalition government from 1931 to 1935. While here he studied science, botany, agriculture, mathematics, and physics.

But what about now? At the moment there’s a good number of senior and influential politicians from across the political spectrum who studied here. In the right corner, for the Conservatives, is Birkbeck alumni include Jesse Norman MP. He is now chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that is currently looking into the future of FIFA and doping in athletics. Jesse Norman lectured in philosophy here (and also wrote a book on thinker Edmund Burke that was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction). In the (middle?) corner we have ex-Liberal Democrat Minister Ed Davey who was in charge of Energy and Climate Change between 2012 and 2015.

In the left corner we have no less than four Birkbeck alumni on Labour’s front bench. This includes Gloria De Piero MP (Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration Cabinet Office) Lisa Nandy MP (Energy and Climate Change) Luciana Berger MP (Shadow Minister for Mental Health and also, incidentally, grandniece of a famous Labour politician) and John McDonnell (Shadow Chancellor).


So Birkbeck is doing well. And it doesn’t end there. Not only do we have great alumni. We also have a big fan base. Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher praised our university. Thatcher herself went to Oxford, where, incidentally, she may or may not have helped invent Mr Whippy ice cream [the Guardian says not but Mr Whippy says she did]. While Prime Minister she took time out to say in 1986 how ‘I admire Birkbeck college and its splendid work’.

You can see more about other famous Birkbeck students here and the history of our building at 10 Gower Street here.



In the wake of the latest ‘Cash for Access’ revelation, Ed Miliband has committed to limit MPs outside earnings to £10,000 per year and introduce a ban on all second jobs. The Labour party will start tomorrow, using its opposition day to propose a bill on the subject. These proposals fit with a series of steps since the 1990s designed to open up and regulate this area as controversy has grown about extra earnings and work. But how will these latest changes impact on MPs and the public?

In terms of MPs, the two issues are whether the new proposals will be implemented and whether they will work. Implementing a ‘cap’ and (eventual) ban on outside earnings would represent an easy win for a new Labour government in 2015, a symbolic step that would have ‘signalling effect’ for the new government’s attitude towards such behaviour. On a more partisan level, it will hit Conservatives much harder than Labour. Research by the Guardian indicates that this would impact on 63, or 1 in 5, Conservative MPs who currently earn over £63,000 as against only 20, or 1 in 12, Labour MPs. You can see more numbers from the Telegraph here.

However, it all may depend on whether Ed Miliband has the numbers in the new House and what politics exists around the change. As Meg Russell pointed out, a number of things need to align for any reform of Parliament to happen – a mixture of a relevant crisis, political will and the right context. Remember David Cameron’s cutting down of the House of Commons to 600 MPs?

The second question for MPs is whether it will work. The reforms are part of a longer trajectory of change towards regulation and transparency. The danger of is that such change can drive poor activity into hard to reach places, away from publicity and into dark corners. It could also trigger other unwanted debate, such as around what MPs do with their time or, more disturbingly, Members getting a pay rise – new Prime Minister Miliband is not likely to want to propose bumping up salaries to £150,000.

What of the public? The new proposals are designed to help increase trust and put an end to lobbying scandals. One basic question is whether the public will notice. It is claimed that few even know the name of their MP, though recent research has challenged this. The public does support a complete ban on second jobs (see page 6 of this polling) and, as research by Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley shows, they do not approve of wealthy MPs, objecting to both the ‘sums and the source’, with a particular dislike of directorships. Their experiment concluded that any sum of money earned while an MP, whether above or below the cap, is problematic.

Whether this will then increase public trust is a far bigger, and more complex, question. It may reduce the space or room for manoeuvre in this one area. However, hopes of ‘improving trust’ over-simplify how we think and process information-the MPs’ expenses scandal ‘confirmed’ to many that MPs were corrupt rather than ‘revealed’ it to them. Voters generally suffer from  a negativity bias and the continual string of ‘cash for…’ revelations are likely to have fed already deeply held views about UK politics. Nor will it end other sources of Parliamentary controversy, from the revolving door to the picking of leaves. So while it may help change behaviour, looking at the graph below, it appears unlikely any one thing can dramatically improve trust in MPs.

Worthy fig 1

Source: Ipsos Mori; House of Commons Library Research

This was original posted on the LSE Politics and Policy blog

Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London..

The new political class of 2015

rosie campbellchrysa_lamprinakoujennifer_van_heerde

There is a perception that Westminster politics is a self-serving career machine for the ambitions of a small cadre of self-reproducing politicians. To what extent is this view justified on the basis of the evidence? With six months until the 2015 general election Rosie Campbell, Chrysa Lamprinakou and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson assess the diversity of the parliamentary candidates selected so far.

There can be no silencing of discussions about who governs us in the wake of the Scottish referendum. As the Westminster parties try to identify means to simultaneously fix both the Scottish and English questions, whilst maximising their electoral advantage, the electorate remains sceptical about mainstream politicians’ commitment to truly represent them. We see evidence of this scepticism in the declining turnout rates at British general elections, the rise in support for UKIP and in the 1,617,989 Scots who decided that they would prefer not to be governed from Westminster at all.

The three party leaders, who travelled up to Scotland to deliver their promise of greater devolution, may not share policy preferences, but on the surface at least they have a great deal in common. All three are white, youngish-middle-aged men with high levels of education and all are career politicians.   The seeming homogeneity of the political elite feeds into a perception that Westminster politics is a self-serving career machine for the ambitions of a small cadre of self-reproducing politicians. To what extent is this view justified on the basis of the evidence? Are political parties continuing to select individuals who fit the usual mould to stand for parliament or is there evidence of increasing diversity among parliamentary candidates?

Using data from our study of parliamentary candidates (see, we look at the gender, race, age and occupation of the candidates selected by party and seat winnability so far.


The Labour Party’s continued use of all women shortlists has become very topical once again. Veteran MP Austin Mitchell used the occasion of the announcement of his retirement to complain that the influx of women MPs had ‘weakened parliament’. Mitchell’s intervention was followed by a YouGov poll for The Times Redbox that showed that All Women Shortlists (AWS) remain unpopular with the electorate, although they were even more unpopular among older people and men than among women and members of younger generations. Female politicians and feminist commentators, however, have defended the use of all women shortlists to overcome bias in the parties’ selection processes.

So what is the sex balance of those seeking election to the Commons in 2015 for the seven largest parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green)? Of the 1440 candidates selected so far (including returning MPs) 73% are men (1045) and 27% are women (395). Excluding incumbent MPs, there are 877 candidates standing for Parliament, 70% male (613) and 30% female (264) candidates. Breaking this down by party (see Figure 1), we can see that Labour’s continued use of AWS, means a 8 percentage point advantage over the Conservatives and a 9% advantage over LibDems in terms of selecting women candidates: Conservatives 31%; Labour 39%; LibDems 30%; Green 37%; Plaid Cymru 29% and UKIP 12%.

Figure 1. Percentage of women candidates by party

Figure 1. Percentage of women candidates by party

Among new candidates in the 100 most marginal seats (those with 2010 margins of less than/equal to 5.37%), the Labour party has selected 30 women out of 58 candidates (52%), the Liberal Democrats have selected 11 women out of 34 (32%), the Conservatives 8 women out of 39 (21%) and UKIP trail behind with 4 women candidates out of 36 (11%). The differences are slightly starker when we consider seats where the parties came second in 2010 (i.e. marginal seats they might hope to win in the event of a positive swing). Among our top 100 most marginal seats where the parties came second in 2010, the Labour party has selected 24 women out of 42 new candidates (57%), the Liberal Democrats have selected 8 women out of 18 (44%) and the Conservatives have selected 7 women out of 31 (23%).

And finally, looking at retirement seats where the incumbent MP has stepped down and the party who won in 2010 has selected a new candidate: the Conservatives have selected 16 men (67%) and 8 women (33%); Labour have selected 6 men (25%) and 18 women (75%); the Liberal Democrats have selected 4 men (50%) and 4 women (50%) and Plaid have selected one female candidate.

Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Candidates

Of the candidates (including returning MPs) selected thus far, we have identified 100 with a BME background. The Labour party has the highest number of BME candidates (43), followed by the Conservatives (29) Liberal Democrats (15), UKIP (8), the Greens (4) and Plaid Cymru (1).

Promisingly, 70 of the 100 BME candidates are not sitting MPs but new candidates and, and as shown in Table 1 below, seven have been selected to stand in retirement seats. Five Tory candidates, Ranil Jayawardena (Hampshire North East), Nusrat Ghani (Wealden), Seema Kennedy (South Ribble), Alan Mak (Havant) and Rishi Sunak (Richmond) have been selected in safe Conservative seats. Given the success of previous BME candidates in safe seats, it is likely that all three will represent their constituencies in Parliament in Westminster in 2015.

In addition to retirement seats, 16 BME candidates have been selected to stand in the 100 marginal constituencies, also indicating that parties are attempting to increase the number of their BME MPs. Whilst it remains to be seen whether further progress towards representation will be made in 2015, the selection of 70 new BME candidates this early on, as well as the choice of seats, suggests that the positive trend established in 2010 may continue.

Table 1. BME candidates selected in retirement seats

Table 1. BME candidates selected in retirement seats


One consequence of the professionalisation of politics has been a change in the age at which MPs begin their political and parliamentary career. Peter Riddell and Anthony King have demonstrated the shift from parliamentarians who had established careers elsewhere before entering politics, with a new generation who chose politics as a career, increasing the number of politicians first elected in their 30s and early 40s. This trend is evident in the 2015 selections.

When we compare the average age of the new candidates to the 2010 election candidates we find that the 2015 candidates are younger, with an average age of 46 years compared to 48 years of the 2010. Of the 2015 cohort selected thus far, 73% of Conservative candidates are in their 30s and 40s compared to 50% of Labour and 43% of Liberal Democrats.

The Labour party has selected a higher percentage of younger candidates (16%), compared to Conservative (12%) and Liberal Democrat (9%) candidates. Notably, however, of the three main parties, the Labour party also has a higher percentage of older candidates: 14% are in their 60s compared to 10% for the Liberal Democrats and just 3% for the Tories. Finally, our data show that the vast majority of the UKIP candidates, 75%, are in their 50s and 60s, with one-third of new candidates aged 60 or older.

Looking at retirement seats, the pattern holds for the Conservative and Labour selections. The majority, 53%, of Conservative candidates in seats in which the party’s sitting MP is standing down are in their 40s whilst most of Labour’s candidates in retirement seats, 44%, are drawn from the 30-39 age group. Overall, the data selected for the 2015 cohort thus far, confirm previous findings about the gradual rise of a younger British political class.

Table 2. Age-range of newly selected candidates by party

Table 2. Age-range of newly selected candidates by party


Finally, we look at the previous occupation of 2015 candidates by party and specifically those candidates with ‘instrumental’ occupational backgrounds. Instrumental occupations are those that have a clear link to politics—e.g. local councillor, special advisor, party worker or union leader—and are used as ‘a means to an elected end’ (Cairney 2007).

As shown in the figure below, roughly a third of Conservative and UKIP candidates hold instrumental jobs at the time of standing for Parliament. Historically, candidates from the three main parties came to politics from established professions (e.g. solicitors/lawyers, medicine, university lecturers, etc.) or from business/industry, however, as politics has become more professionalised, the number of candidates from instrumental backgrounds has grown. This is increasingly true for Labour and the minor parties.


Figure 2. 2015 candidates: Candidates with instrumental occupational backgrounds


A new political class?

So, are the 2015 candidates really new in terms of what has come before? Is there evidence of a new political class? We draw three conclusions based on candidates selected to date. First, there is some evidence that parties are choosing a more representative set of candidates, at least in terms of sex and ethnicity. Second, candidates are slightly younger on average, but there is variation across the parties in terms of average age. And finally, there are an increasing number of candidates for whom politics is their first job, confirming evidence elsewhere showing a narrowing of the political class. One consequence of this is that it may serve to reinforce the view among many in the public that Britain’s politicians are ‘out of touch’.

There are some changes, but its early days. With six months until the 2015 general election, we’ll be keeping watch over who’s selected and elected.

Data are correct as of 26 October 2014. The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2013-175) .This post was originally published on the Constitution Unit blog.

About the Authors

Dr Rosie Campbell is Reader in Politics at Birkbeck

Dr Chrysa Lamprinakou is a Research Associate and Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL

Dr Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson is Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour & Departmental Graduate Tutor at UCL


The government has returned, once again, to the idea of recalling MPs if they behave in a particularly poor way. This means that a by-election can be triggered by a petition from constituents in certain circumstances. As the BBC explains

Voters could trigger a by-election if the House of Commons resolves that an MP has engaged in “serious wrongdoing”. A by-election would be forced if more than 10% of constituents signed a petition over an eight-week period after the Commons ruled an MP could face recall.

See this excellent research note by the House of Commons library. Not everyone is convinced this is a good idea. The title of this great article by David Judge says it all ‘If I Were You I Wouldn’t Start from Here’. Neither was the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee impressed. MP Zac Goldsmith has gone one stage further, arguing for ‘full recall’, where a petition to trigger an election can be created for any reason by constituents, rather than just when the House of Commons decides there has been ‘serious wrongdoing’. I can foresee three potential problems:

Problem 1: What the government are giving isn’t what the public want

Under the current government proposals, as David Judge puts it, MPs would ‘have to have done something ‘breathtakingly wrong’ to be subject to recall under the Government’s proposals’. Interestingly, the public appears to believe there should be a number of circumstances under which recall should have an effect:


From PRC report 2013

From PRC report 2013

Nick Clegg has already ruled out recall elections for laziness but the public clearly feels lying, expense fiddling and, to nearly a quarter, having an affair should trigger a recall election. The danger is that if recall is introduced in the way the government wants it will be seen as a ‘sham’ (like it was last time it was proposed).

But if it passed, especially as ‘full’ recall, it might not be easy because…

Problem 2:  It can get political

One reason MPs don’t like recall is that it can get political. In parts of the US, recall has become highly politicised. In Wisconsin, the combination of a controversial ‘tea-party’ supported Governor Scott Walker and a thin Republican majority led to a series of ‘recall’ elections triggered by both sides intended to shift the balance of power in the state legislature-see here. See also these two councillors facing recall over their city redevelopment plans.

Problem 3: It grows over time

In 19 US states there is recall at different levels, from state legislature down to local school boards. The evidence from the US is that recall can grow over time-this article records 150 elections in 2011 with a 50% success rate in removing officials. In 2013 the numbers have gone down slightly but of ‘107 recalls, 73 were ousted; 51 officials lost a race, and another 22 resigned’ meaning a very high ‘68% removal rate’. Spivak argues that using recall has become easier and cheaper due to information technology.

In 2013, the last time recall was proposed, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended the government ‘abandon its plans’ as

We are not convinced that the proposals will increase public confidence in politics. Indeed, we fear that the restricted form of recall proposed could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled… Under the Government’s proposals, constituents themselves would not be able to initiate a recall petition.

Let’s see this time…

N.B. the title was not just a clever pun-as you may know, Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor of California via a recall ballot in 2003.

Ben Worthy teaches on the Parliamentary Studies course


Lewis Whyld/PA

Originally posted on the conversation

The former culture secretary, Maria Miller, is the latest in a series of MPs to have been caught up in an expenses controversy. The issue of what parliamentarians do with their allowances has now embarrassed or damaged a great many MPs, from Gordon Brown downwards. In a few cases, as with Miller, it has led to resignations. It has also, for a few, led to prison.

Since the first revelations in the Daily Telegraph in May 2009, which saw parliament lose its speaker, there has been a continual flow of expenses-related stories. In 2011 Liberal Democrat MP David Laws resigned; in 2012 Labour MP Denis MacShane stepped down (and was later imprisoned); and in 2013, George Osborne (and many others) were exposed over their use of first-class train tickets.

In parallel, there were rows over the MPs’ pay rise and the continued existence of IPSA, the independent regulator. Scrutiny of allowances has also been seen in local government, the police and even universities. But expenses revelations don’t always end in resignation or prison. What makes each case different?

How it gets out

The first difference is how someone is found out. The chain of accountability is often complicated. Just after the scandal, David Cameron himself said:

What the Daily Telegraph did – the simple act of providing information to the public – has triggered the biggest shake-up of our political system. It is information – not a new law, not some regulation – just the provision of information that has enabled people to take on the political class, demand answers and get those answers.

Actually, finding the information can be trickier than it looks. Far from being a “simple” story of “information provision”, the expenses scandal is a great example of how difficult it can be to bring information to light.

The FOI request for a selection of MPs’ expenses was first made in 2005. It then took a four-year campaign by journalists using FOI laws, the FOI appeal system and then the courts. The information was finally released by a very old-fashioned mode of disclosure: a leak. Interestingly, according to the original Telegraph story, Miller’s expenses problems appear to have stemmed from a well-placed tip-off rather than detailed public scrutiny.

The next step, “demanding answers”, can be just as difficult. Once information is disclosed, holding the MP in question to account requires the right context and environment. The level of media interest and the “amount” of wrong done determines how any scandal unfolds, and what (if any) price the politician pays.

Who did it?

The second factor is, of course, the individual politician involved. Who the politician is, how they react, and the media and public view are all crucial. George Osborne was unlikely to suffer more than blushes over his minor train ticket kerfuffle, and was very well protected. It may even have helped that he had history of previous minor “slip-ups”. Miller’s situation was far more precarious. Her very brief first apology and apparent attempts to “influence” the press and commissioner worsened the situation. Her actions lost the support of the party; just as importantly, her position at the centre of the Leveson reforms made her unpopular (to say the least) with large swathes of the press.

Five years on from the storm of 2009, the expenses issue continues to bubble away under the surface of Westminster politics, occasionally bursting to the top unpredictably as the result of leaks, tip-offs or assiduous research and throwing up sudden squalls of varying ferocity. When controversy reappears, the exact effect depends on many things: how the information was obtained, how it is then used and who it relates to. The only certainty is that we haven’t heard the last of expenses yet.

Ben Worthy teaches on the Parliamentary Studies module at Birkbeck.