Peter Allen and David Cutts
People who run for political office are strange. That is, they are unlike most other people. The pertinent question from a democratic standpoint is whether this abnormality is bound up with a wider set of socioeconomic and characteristic differences between the politically ambitious and everybody else.
In other words, are the differences we can see of such a kind that we should we be worried about them?
Both popular and academic debate has expressed concern that the pool from which we elect our politicians contains sufficient diversity. Something we know little about in the British context is political ambition, a trait that is a necessary prerequisite to candidacy, but not a sufficient one in itself.
Data from the first systematic study of political ambition in Britain is drawn from an original online survey conducted by YouGov of just over 10,000 respondents in England, Scotland, and Wales and was collected in March and April 2017.
Overall, we found that an overwhelming majority of British people have never considered running for political office, with only 10 per cent responding that they had. Our data showed that a highly‐educated relatively young man from social grade ABC1 is more likely to be politically ambitious than any other kind of person. Other findings are summarised below.
The gender gap
There is a clear gender gap in political ambition, with British men more than twice as likely as British women to report having considered putting themselves forward as a candidate for political office, figures of 14 and 7 per cent, respectively.
Turning to consider level of education, we find that individuals with high levels of education (primarily signalled by possession of a university degree) are roughly twice as likely as those with medium levels of education (generally completion of secondary education) to have considered running for political office, and over three times more likely than those with low levels of education (unfinished secondary education or lower).
The north–south divide
A key strand of the popular discussion around the British ‘political class’ focuses on its supposed London‐centrism or broader cosmopolitanism.
Our data permits some examination of this question. Respondents in the south of Britain, broadly defined to include the South West (12.2 per cent), South East (11.3 per cent), and London (11.1 per cent) being considerably more ambitious than respondents in the North East (7.9 per cent), North West (8.7 per cent), and Yorkshire and the Humber (9 per cent).
A further element of the political class narrative described above, and also related to the notion that the political world is something of a closed shop, is the sense that political dynasties of parents, siblings, spouses, and children are disproportionately likely to produce candidates for office.
Our data showed that individuals whose parents were involved in political activities throughout their childhood express far greater interest in running for office than individuals whose parents were not involved at all.
The class divide
Social grade, a measure of occupational status often utilised in discussions of social class, also has a relationship with levels of political ambition. Individuals in higher social grades more likely to be ambitious than those in lower grades.
Slightly over 12 per cent of individuals from social grade ABC1 (including the upper, middle, and lower middle classes) reported having considered running for political office compared to just under 8 per cent of respondents classified in social grade C2DE (skilled working class, working class, and not working).
Ethnic minority groups
Owing to the relatively small sample size for various ethnic minority groups, we instead initially utilised a binary division between white (ethnic majority) and non‐white (ethnic minority) respondents. Although a crude distinction in many ways, the increased statistical power offered by this split would more easily permit the identification of an effect in either direction. 10.4 per cent of white respondents reported some political ambition compared to 9.9 per cent of non‐white respondents.
With the above caveat, alongside the roughly 10 per cent of white respondents expressing political ambitions of some kind, respondents of mixed ethnicity have slightly higher levels of ambition (around 13 per cent), while individuals with South Asian ethnic backgrounds have lower levels of ambition, with only 8 per cent considering putting themselves forward.
Levels of trust in politicians
Although public disaffection and disillusionment with politics, politicians, and political institutions is hardly new, we don't know precisely how it affects political ambition, although we err on the side of pessimism.
Generally, it seems that faith in politics and politicians is something of a prerequisite for expressing political ambition. Although this might sound like a truism, it should trouble those hoping for democratic outbursts in opposition to a seemingly perennially unpopular political class: from what we can tell, this is unlikely to occur.
We should not anticipate the collapse of our political institutions should political ambition become further concentrated in an even more limited group of citizens. This is unlikely. What we may expect, though, is an intensification of anti‐political feeling and a perceived growth in the distance separating those involved in political life from those who are not. For further discussion, including suggestions for what can be done, see our journal article.
Peter Allen is Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Bath.
David Cutts is Professor of Political Science at the University of Birmingham.
This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.