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Mon 29 November 2021

Disparity in political allegiance among veteran MPs, revealed by the Byline Intelligence Team, raises questions of military representation in British political life

The overwhelming majority of veterans – 91% – from the two main political parties are Conservatives, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

An analysis of the political representation of the members of the House of Lords and Commons who have served in the British military has revealed that, of the 44 veterans who sit in the Commons, 40 are Conservative. 11% of Conservative MPs have served in the armed forces, while only 1% of – 2 – Labour MPs have this background.

In addition, a quarter of the eight Democratic Unionist Party MPs have been in the military. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Shannon both served during The Troubles in the Ulster Defence Regiment – part of the British Army with close links to loyalist paramilitaries.

The Conservative Party is also the political party of choice for peers with a military background. Over three-quarters of veteran peers affiliated with a political party are Conservative members (23 peers). Conversely, there are currently just two Labour peers who have served in the armed forces. There are five Liberal Democrat peers who are veterans. The majority of veteran members of the House of Lords are crossbench peers who are not party political (24).

Defence journalist Joe Glenton, whose new book Veterenhood examines the lives of the British ex-military, is concerned about the dominance of veteran parliamentarians in the two main parties. He believes that their military backgrounds might act as a shield from scrutiny of their political actions.

“Military people in Parliament – with British politics being as militarised as it is –  are a little bit bulletproof,” he told Byline Times.

According to Glenton, democracy is threatened because elected representatives with a military background are harder to criticise. “If you look at the Johnny Mercers and the Tom Tugendhats – the new batch that have come through – my sense is the fact that they are military people makes it harder to criticise because the military, even in Parliament, is elevated to such status,” he said.


Most Diverse Parliament Ever?

The Byline Intelligence Team‘s research showed that the average veteran MP is a white man – making a space that already has a diversity problem even less representative.  

Just three veteran MPs are non-white: the Conservative Party’s James Cleverly and Darren Henry; and Labour backbencher Clive Lewis. MPs from an ethnic minority background account for 6.8% of veteran MPs, but 19.5% of the UK population is recorded as non-white. 

This reflects a wider pattern of Parliament failing to be representative. The 2019 General Election was championed as producing the most diverse Parliament ever, but less than 10% of MPs elected were non-white.  

Women are also under-represented among veteran MPs. They account for 12.5% of armed forces veterans but only 6.8% of MPs with a military background. There are only three veteran women MPs: Flick Drummond, Sarah Atherton, and Penny Mordaunt. Mordaunt, the UK’s first female Defence Secretary, is a Navy reservist in the Portsmouth-based HMS King Alfred. 

Conservative veteran MPs are also over-represented in the Prime Minister’s inner circle. Ministers with a military background make up 8.7% of the Cabinet, even though 3.1% of the population are armed forces veterans. 

Two Conservative Cabinet members have previously served in the armed forces: Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was an officer in the Scots Guards; while Wales Secretary Simon Hart has previously volunteered as an army reservist. 

No current member of Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet has a military background. 


The Enlisted Electorate 

Increased Conservative political representation across military communities in the UK was also revealed through the Byline Intelligence Team‘s analysis.

It found that constituencies with large barracks overwhelmingly return Conservative MPs (83%). In the 2019 General Election, 62 Conservative MPs were elected by 75 constituencies with sizable military bases. Four Conservative MPs elected by constituencies with barracks were ex-servicemen themselves: Leo Docherty, Richard Drax, Darren Henry, and Andrew Murrison. 

A poll commissioned by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change into Labour’s 2017 General Election defeat found that Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived lack of support for the armed forces pushed some traditional Labour voters to defect.

Labour has recently tried to court the military. Speaking at this year’s Labour Party Conference, Starmer promised to “do right by the great Britons who serve in our armed forces”. Last year, he relaunched the ‘Friends of the Forces’ scheme to “link those in the forces and forces communities directly with Labour’s decision-makers”. But Joe Glenton has called the scheme “a stage prop”. 

“Labour is kind of trying to do what the Conservatives do on defence,” he told Byline Times. “So Starmer comes out with the same kind of platitudes and is trying to do that to appeal to an audience that already has a party.”

Friends of the Forces did not reply to a request for comment.

Former armed services personnel favouring the right is not new. Since the 1951 General Election, the majority of veteran MPs have been Conservative. 

Over the past 80 years, there has been an average of 21 veteran MPs sitting in the House of Commons, with only one veteran MP that is not a Conservative. The most Labour MPs with a military background sitting in the Commons has been three. For the last three decades of the 20th Century, there was no Labour veteran MP.

The headline of this article was updated at 15.15 on 25 October to correct an inaccuracy. The headline should have read that 91% of veterans from main political parties are Conservatives, not that 91% of MPs with armed forces background are Conservative

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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