Rep By Pop, or Rep by Wealth (Or Lack Of It)? Lived Experience For Pols

Marcus Rashford in uniform
FWC 2018 - Round of 16 - COL v ENG - Photo 106 photo by Voltmetro is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Marcus Rashford plays for Manchester United. He also knows what it's like to be hungry and called on the English government to extend school food programs during COVID-19.

Of all the formulae we hear about parliamentary (or congressional) representation, one of the least mentioned is a test based on the wealth of the candidates.

Normally, Rep by Pop depends entirely on the whims of a voting age population existing within a traditional political boundary, whether nation, state, or other region. There are few restrictions on the candidates to be representatives — age and place of residence and/or birth most frequently.

So . . . representation based at least partially on candidate wealth? What on earth?

A recent post, gleaned from a rather obscure news report and survey from New Zealand, makes a rare hint at a way of linking wealth to representation, though not precisely as “Rep by Wealth.” It proposed that Members of Parliament be required to live in public housing, in order to properly appreciate the needs of less wealthy citizens.1

Two implications may be drawn from this “model proposal.”

First, elected representatives are almost always tied to money. In the United States, as an extreme example, election cycles now effectively last between two and four years. There are no practical restrictions and many benefits for having candidates drowning in money — millions of dollars lavished upon dressing up presidential and congressional hopefuls.

Second, those “people’s representatives” who possess, or have access to, wealth — they would by and large seem constitutionally incapable of understanding both the fundamental needs of those who have no money. They seldom or never have lived experience of poverty. Neither, as the New Zealand example suggests, are they ever likely to cozy up to it enough to properly understand the condition.

A recent example in the United Kingdom featured a a top footballer who had a simple demand: feed starving children who depend on school meals by continuing to do so outside of term time.

Footballer Marcus Rashford, once a starving child, stood up against the mighty UK parliament. That institution quickly scrambled together a tottery path of budgetary and statistical stepping stools to keep their feet out of the mud as they retreated away from this simple humanitarian challenge. In doing so, Parliament backed themselves into a public uproar. In the end, the United Kingdom’s government capitulated to a beloved British type of hero — the underdog. Government was forced into a humiliating climb down, not just once, but twice.2

Could the accustomed wealth of parliamentarians render them incapable of appreciating the importance of a basic human need to eat, and making them unable to represent citizen-eaters?

But surely this was all a momentary mixup in the midst of a pandemic, not a reliable indicator that rep by pop is founded at best on a mimicry of “lived experience?”

Don’t bet on it.

Two losses in the face of compassionate public pressure, and already the UK has moved on to round three. Though more of a tempest in a teapot, it is revealing enough to expose the disconnect between well-off rep-by-pop politicians and the hard realities of “lived experience.”

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has recently had the temerity to provided funding to help feed starving children in London. What a slap in the face to one of the world’s most advanced nations!

And what a pathetic, though entirely predictable, response from UK’s parliament, as expressed by one of its most powerful politicians, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons and a man whose full time hobby is pretending to be a 19th century English gentleman.3

“Just a stunt!” cried Rees-Mogg in response to the UNICEF funding, demonstrating at least one live brain cell.

Yes, of course it was a stunt by UNICEF. But it was not JUST a stunt. Scorn followed by rote waffle from Rees-Mogg could not hide the Government’s feet of clay on recent issues related to poverty, hunger, and shelter in the UK. Read more in The Guardian: Jacob Rees-Mogg under fire for dismissing UNICEF’s UK grants as stunt

And therein lies a fundamental weakness of a person with no lived experience of poverty, individual starvation and family starvation, as well as responsibility for bringing up children without enough food. Read more in The Guardian: ‘One meal a day’: how pandemic hit families before Unicef’s aid

So. Debates rage about election counting and measuring methods, such as “first past the post” and “proportional representation.” But alongside all the important qualifications required by candidates, such as their age (no kiddies, please) and their citizenship (no foreigners, please), where are the boxes to be ticked that indicate lived experience?

Could lived experience ever become part of qualifications for representatives in electoral democracies? With the inherent difficulties of requiring political candidates with a lived experience of poverty, the “modest proposal” from New Zealand becomes an attractive possibility for training up elected politicians to at least gain experience.

And if not a requirement to live in public housing, then perhaps free accommodation provided by issuance to politicians of some form of housing voucher or rental allowance that they must use and subsist upon. Let the goats lie down with the sheep, and the lions with the lambs!

Footnotes

  1. Try: How Parliamentarians Might Get A Meaningful Taste Of Public Housing
  2. If you live in the UK, you already know about this. For others, here’s a BBC article on the aftermath of the UK government’s second climb down: Marcus Rashford welcomes school holiday support climbdown
  3. For your entertainment, a parliamentary session notable for Rees-Mogg’s gentlemanly styling:  Brexit: Slouching Jacob Rees-Mogg lampooned in memes

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