Gaps in class, income, gender and education are major factors in who runs for political office in Britain as well as the north-south divide, according to the first research of its kind in Britain.

The study, by the University of Bath and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), highlights how university-educated and socially elite men from the South are most likely to consider becoming an MP or councillor. They are also young, confident and have parents who were involved in politics when they were growing up.

The findings are based on a survey of more than 10,000 British people into what drives political ambition. The suggestion from the research is that policies aimed at making politics more open to under-represented groups are not working as well as was hoped.

"Our political institutions don’t 'look like' the British people because of these biases," said Dr Peter Allen, who led the research. "This study highlights how political parties risk further alienating the public who already think Westminster is run by London elites.

"They should adjust how they recruit to minimise this effect. If they don’t then people will switch off long term, and politics will increasingly become the domain of the wealthy and highly-educated. It’s a matter of self-preservation."

The widely held view is that political candidates should come from a diverse range of backgrounds. This ensures that democratic institutions such as the House of Commons are representative of the general population.

Until now, researchers have focused on the type of people already holding seats. However, the issue of political ambition and the backgrounds of who want to run for office has not been explored in such depth in Britain before.

Dr Allen and his colleagues investigated who exactly is interested in putting themselves forward for office by analysing data from a recent YouGov survey.

The key findings include:

  • Only one in ten had thought of standing as a candidate or putting themselves forward.
  • Men were more than twice as likely as women to have considered running.
  • Eighteen to 24-year-olds had the highest levels of political ambition of any age group.
  • Highly educated respondents, eg with a university degree, were more than three times as likely to have political ambitions than those who failed to finish secondary school or quit even earlier.  
  • Those from mixed-race backgrounds expressed slightly higher levels of ambition than those who were white. People identifying as South Asian were least likely to stand.
  • More than twice as many people identifying as upper class had considered putting themselves forward than those in the middle or lower class bracket.  
  • Those earning in excess of the average UK annual salary of £27,600 were more likely to consider running for office.
  • Respondents in the South are more ambitious politically than those living in the North.
  • Those whose parents were politically active during their childhood were more likely to run for office than those without.
  • Confident and outgoing people with faith in politicians are more likely to have political ambition. They are not necessarily the kindest or most sympathetic individuals however.

Dr Allen says that initiatives such as family-friendly policies in the Welsh and Scottish assemblies appear not to have closed the gender gap in political ambition. "These efforts are worthy of pursuit but we’ve found no effect from our data. The message is they should not be considered a simple fix. What’s needed is wider social change."

The rise of groups like Momentum could encourage a broader range of candidates to come forward for selection, he adds, although it is yet unclear what their impact will be.