Survey Variable: Perceived Privilege of Those in Politics

In addition to asking about the things, if any, that differentiate people who get involved in politics from the public, and the percentage of politicians who were privately educated, the Privilege and Participation survey was more explicit about privilege in politics. It asked about the privilege of two groups, politicians and people who get involved in politics, when compared to the self and society. Respondents could indicate how much more or less privileged they thought each group is, when compared to the two reference points, and their answers are shown in Figure 1 (above, using weighted data).[1]

The first and most obvious observation is that very few people think of politicians or people who get involved in politics as less privileged than themselves or society at large. This figure is highest for people who get involved in politics compared to oneself (panel B), and one in twenty-five (3.9%) say that they are less privileged. Further, a third of people (32.5%) view people who get involved in politics as about equally privileged to them, which is also the highest figure in any of the comparisons. At the other end of the spectrum, roughly one in seven people (13.4%) think that politicians have levels of privilege on par with society at large (panel C), whilst more than six in ten (63.4%) think that they are more or much more privileged. This is similar to the almost two thirds of people (65.7%) who think that politicians are more or much more privileged than themselves (panel A), and the approximately one in seven (14.8%) who think that they are about equally privileged. Finally, the comparison of people who get involved in with society at large (panel D) sits in the middle. Three in ten people (29.7%, a plurality) think that political involved people are a little more privileged than society at large, and a similar number (28.3%) think that they are more privileged. However, more than a fifth (22.8%) think that they are roughly equally privileged, meaning that only one in six (15.6%) think that they are much more privileged.

People clearly see politicians as a notably more privileged group that people who get involved in politics more generally. However, as with the observation that most people see political activists as different from them in some sense, they clearly perceive a privilege gap between both themselves and society on one side, and people who are politically active on the other. This suggests that any disconnection between politics and the public begins before we reach the level of politicians, with people who undertake the much humbler day-to-day activities that sustain politics.

There is, however, a caveat: we do not know whether people have earned or unearned privilege in mind when answering these questions. If the former, their answers imply that people who get involved in politics and become politicians are given certain rights and rewards because of the positions that they attain, suggesting that they become distinct from the public as they rise through the political ranks. If the latter, their answers imply that political activists and politicians were probably already socially distinct, and more privileged, before they got involved in politics. Different people are likely place different emphases on earned an unearned privilege, which may be linked to their beliefs about the reasons for status difference. Either way, it is clear that people perceive a privilege gap when comparing politics to themselves and society, and that this gap exists before we reach the upper echelons of politics.


[1] See also Table A1.

Published by joegreenwoodhau

Joe Greenwood-Hau is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Government & Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, where he works on the Capital, Privilege and Political Participation in Britain and Beyond project.

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