The political landscape in the UK is rapidly shifting. The country is on the verge of another general election, MPs are swapping parties left right and centre, and there has been a surge in support for smaller political parties.
Aside from a resurgent Liberal Democrats, perhaps the single biggest change this year has been the rise of the Brexit party, who have gone from launching a few months ago, to winning 26 of the country’s 73 seats in the European Parliament, making them the UK’s biggest party in that chamber. They are also doing well nationally, polling at between 10 and 20% in Westminster voting intentions – making it likely they will play a sizeable role in any upcoming general election.
The Sutton Trust has been monitoring the diversity in social background of Britain’s political representatives for over a decade, and the perceived distance between MPs and their constituents has increasingly become a hot political topic. But, with a new four party contest potentially on the electoral horizon, how might those competing to form the next parliament look differently? The most recent nationwide elections, to the European Parliament in May, could offer a clue.
Looking at the school background of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) overall, we found that 32% attended a private school, a very similar figure to the 29% of all MPs. Likewise, 15% of all MEPs attended a grammar school, a similar figure to the 17% of MPs who went to this type of school.
To understand more about the political representatives of the new fourth party in British politics, we’ve looked at the educational backgrounds of the Brexit party’s newly elected MEPs. From both online searches, and by reaching out directly to the MEPs themselves, we were able to find information on school background for the majority of them (83%).
Looking at the Brexit party MEPs for whom we could find data, a large proportion (42%) attended an independent school, making them substantially more likely (6 times) to have done so than the population overall. This is similar to the 45% of Conservative MPs in Westminster who went to an independent school, and much higher than the 15% of Labour MPs who did so. A further 42% of Brexit party MEPs went to a comprehensive school, 8% attended a grammar school, and 8% were educated outside of the UK.
Unfortunately, no other UK party in the European Parliament has enough MEPs to allow us to do a reliable party breakdown for comparison. Instead, we have looked at these MEPs together as one group. A much lower proportion (24%) of MEPs from other parties attended an independent school, although a higher proportion (19%) attended a grammar school.
Next, we looked at the university backgrounds of MEPs, information we were able to find for all 73. The majority (86%) of MEPs attended university, a similar proportion to the 88% of Westminster MPs educated to the same level. A large proportion (38%) attended Oxbridge, a far higher percentage than that of MPs (24%), and a further third (33%) went to a university in the Russell Group.
About three quarters (76%) of Brexit MEPs attended university, a lower proportion than MEPs overall, and of MPs in Westminster, and MEPs from other parties were much more likely than those in the Brexit party to have attended university (91%).
Likewise, just 10% of Brexit party MEPs attended Oxbridge, and while this is still a much higher figure than the general population (of whom fewer than 1% have been to Oxbridge), it is less than half the proportion who did so in the UK’s national parliament, and is also much lower than that of either the Conservative or Labour parties in Westminster, of whom 31% and 20% respectively attended one of the two institutions. Almost double the proportion of non-Brexit party MEPs attended Oxbridge (18%).
Just over a third (34%) of Brexit party MEPs went to another university in the Russell Group, a similar proportion to the 31% of MEPs from other parties who attended another a Russell Group institution.
As we have outlined previously, while the school someone attends is not a perfect way to look at their socio-economic background, it is a useful and accessible proxy. The number of fully subsidised places at private schools is very low, and although it has been higher in the past, it is still true to say that the overwhelming majority of students who have been to an independent school in the last few decades will have only been able to attend because of the financial resources available to their parents.
In terms of school background, the Brexit Party’s elected representatives look similar to the British political establishment as a whole, and indeed are more likely to have been privately educated than the MPs of some parties.
In contrast, their university experiences are indeed different, with far fewer attending the most prestigious institutions. But they still remain much more likely to have been to a top university, and indeed to university at all, than the general population.
While the last election delivered the most comprehensively educated parliament on record, on this evidence at least, the Brexit party – as with the traditional political parties in Westminster – still have a long way to go before they look like the people they seek to represent.