THIS is an age of inclusion. Right-thinking people are supposed to do everything they can to include the excluded and mainstream the side-streamed. But one group has been forgotten: people without university degrees. The degree-less make up 70% of the population but a small minority of MPs. They underperform when it comes to every measure of political participation, from joining parties to voting. They are retreating at a time when other under-represented groups are advancing. The proportion of women MPs has increased from 3% in 1979 to 32% today, as the share of degree-less MPs has fallen from 40% to 30%.

Two great institutions used to provide the uneducated with elevators to the top. One was the Labour Party, the other the trade union movement. Ernest Bevin, perhaps the greatest foreign secretary of the 20th century, left school at 11 and rose to fame in the Dockers’ Union. Today Labour has roughly the same proportion of university graduates as the Conservatives among its MPs. A fascinating book by Mark Bovens and Anchrit Wille, “Diploma Democracy”, shows that what they call political meritocracy is advancing across the rich world.

Why should this bother us? There are two polite arguments why it shouldn’t. Degree-less citizens aren’t being prevented from voting in a post-industrial version of Jim Crow. The proportion of young people who go on to university has risen from less than a tenth in 1980 to nearly half today. There is also a rude argument: that stupid people vote for stupid things. Only 59% of the electorate turned out in 2001, electing a Labour government that poured resources into tackling poverty. Fully 72% voted in the Brexit referendum, with less educated voters tipping the balance in favour of leaving the EU, which is likely to make the poor poorer.

Let’s take these arguments in rising order of smugness. The less educated may not encounter formal barriers to participation, but they face informal ones. Call-centre workers can’t take a few weeks off to campaign for office. People are less inclined to vote if they don’t see people like themselves in Parliament: the gap in turnout between more and less educated voters increased from five percentage points in 1987, when there were still many working-class MPs, to 37 points in 2015. Even though access to higher education has expanded, working-class people are still less likely to go to university than the middle class. As to the idea that stupid people make stupid decisions, many of the biggest disasters of recent years, from credit-default swaps to the democratisation of the Middle East, were dreamt up by clever people.

The most powerful argument for worrying about the number of less-educated people in Parliament is the same as the case for worrying about the number of women or ethnic minorities: that some groups have experiences in common that give them a claim to representation. Degree-less people have different outlooks to graduates because they have different experiences. They are more worried about making ends meet and clearing up crime, and more supportive of redistribution and protectionism.

Boosting their representation could improve decision-making. There is an abundance of evidence that groups with diverse views and cognitive styles make better decisions than homogenous ones. Increasing the representation of the degree-less might also promote political stability. Britain is caught in a dangerous cycle of disillusion and anger. First, the less educated lost interest in politics, with voter turnout falling from 75% in the 1980s to 59% in 2001. Then, they decided to give the establishment a good kicking by voting for Brexit.

The best way to break this cycle is to reconnect those who don’t have degrees to the political process. One way to do this is to get more of them into the House of Commons. Possibilities range from reserving them places as candidates to helping them with the cost of fighting elections. Another way would be to reinvent the House of Lords as a bulwark against meritocratic triumphalism. That could mean allocating membership by lottery (a House of Lots) or giving slots in the Lords to occupational groups. If seats are reserved for bishops, why not Uber drivers?

Listing these possibilities might suggest that reforming the system is neither possible nor desirable. A House of Lots might be even less legitimate than the House of Lords, for example. Fortunately, softer forms of intervention, like persuading candidate-selection committees not to reject people simply because they haven’t been to university, might have big effects, given the delicate balance of power between the two biggest parties. The most obvious way to break the deadlock is to re-engage the degree-less masses who gave up on politics during the Blair-Cameron years but briefly re-emerged to vote for Brexit.

Degrees of separation

Both the main parties seem to be waking up to this fact. The Tories are trying to use a combination of Brexit and hostility to Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left views to attract patriotic voters. Labour is reinventing itself as a mass-membership party, with its subscribers surging from fewer than 200,000 in 2010 to more than 500,000 today. It is also trying to deploy local candidates rather than parachuting in Oxbridge-educated clones. The last is a particularly worthy strategy: Angela Rayner, who won Ashton-under-Lyne in 2015 despite leaving school with no qualifications and a baby on the way, has far more interesting things to say about the welfare state than her university-educated contemporaries.

It is unclear who will win this emerging battle for the 70%. The Conservatives’ campaign last year failed to attract degree-less voters in large numbers, while simultaneously repulsing graduates in places like Battersea and Canterbury. At the same time, Mr Corbyn’s liberal approach to immigration and hard-left foreign policy are alienating traditional-minded voters. One thing is clear: thanks to Brexit and the collapse of the Blair-Cameron consensus, the forgotten citizen is finally being remembered.