Friend! Loneliness and friendship in the Palace of Westminster

friend

I think I’ve got it. Finally, after months of scratching my head over what the hell the Westminster bubble was on about, I’ve realised. It’s not Laura Pidcock they don’t understand, but the entire meaning of friendship. This epiphany has made me understand why Laura’s seemingly innocuous, ‘of course I’m not going to go for a pint with a Tory MP after a hard day’s work’ words were met with such outrage, confusion and even apoplectic rage in certain, high octane circles.

Because I’m telling you, those of us on the outside of those walls were genuinely shocked by the volcanic reaction to that simple concept: that I’m not going to sup with the people who are actively hurting my community, my friends, my family. To us, that seemed pure common sense, but what I’ve realised since, having viewed Westminster from an anthropological perspective (I still see myself as an outsider even though I’m now inside the walls), is that it is a case of two distinct, common senses colliding, and as such it needs unpicking. At first I thought it was faux outrage, now I realise that it is part of a deep dysfunction.

So, let’s start from the beginning. We know that, until recently, the route into politics, on both sides, was fairly standard, a well-trodden path: a hugely disproportionate number of MPs came from public schools, or elite universities, especially Oxbridge. Not all, of course – there were other routes, (e.g. through trade unions or as a ‘self-made’ business people). But, certainly amongst those who ‘made it’ to higher office, there was a very specific culture. Anyone who has spent any time amongst those who have been incubated in those ‘elite’ schools and universities, know that alongside a very prominent sense of entitlement, there is also a culture of competition, a slightly dysfunctional concept of friendship and a deep sense of loneliness.

Parliament, in many senses, is a mirror of that bizarre culture, with all those facets of competition, unstable alliances, and loneliness. Spend a week in Parliament and you will feel the alienation – it’s tangible. Imagine then, that you’re a young, northern, working class woman, who went to a comp and Manchester Metropolitan Uni, with very a different culture and values. To anyone from the culture and history that most of us inhabit, the atmosphere of Parliament – not just the tradition, rules or the building, but the transient human relationships, the proximity of gossiping journalists in almost all parts of Westminster and the enclosed, privileged spaces – is absolutely alienating, if not hostile. As Laura said, it’s the strangest workplace anyone of us has ever inhabited. To find it normal in any sense, you must have emerged from a very different reality. That different reality is the privileged bubble of the elite, as educated inside the cloisters of Oxbridge and comfortingly expensive private schools.

Of course, people say: ‘but Tony Benn was great friends with Enoch Powell’ and it’s true that he did spend time in the House with the old racist, as he did with Ian Paisley. Reading the diaries, there is no evidence that their friendship extended much beyond Westminster. I doubt Caroline would have allowed it. Benn did, however, attend Powell’s funeral and allegedly told worried New Labour spin doctors that he would be going because Powell was “his friend”. I didn’t know Tony well enough to quiz him on that concept of friendship and what it meant to him, but I do remember him talking about Powell in similar terms to Thatcher: that he hated his ideology, but respected the fact that he was, in his terms, a signpost rather than a weathervane and he admired that. Is that friendship? Is that as deep as the friendship he had with Dennis Skinner, Joan Maynard or Eric Heffer. I suppose we can only guess, but my own view is that, because he was from a privileged and politically pluralist background, Benn had learnt the Parliamentary game. That doesn’t mean that he and Powell were the greatest of friends, only that in the lonely rooms of the Palace of Westminster, they shared some common personal ground, just as Attlee and Churchill did.

Obviously, Laura Pidcock’s case is different as are her ideas about friendship, which is her right. In amongst the feather spitting, one small sentence uttered by Laura has been completely missed, but it offers a clue to the real issue here. She said: “I have friends I choose to spend time with”. That isn’t a deliberate, provocative dismissal of the people she is now surrounded by in Parliament, but a genuine sentiment, and those of us who aren’t career politicians will recognise it as such. Friends aren’t people who we share chit-chat with on the Terrace or in Strangers Bar. It’s not a journalist who we ‘hit it off’ with over a coffee in Portcullis House, someone we exchange jokes about how bad Arsenal were at the weekend – and definitely not someone we say ‘hi’ to as we pass them in the corridor between votes. It isn’t even someone we find common cause with, or chat over an issue with (whatever party). None of that is friendship, at least not the way we conceive it.

Close friends are people who you share your home with, your darkest secrets and most fanciful ideas. They are people who’ve seen you through weddings, break ups, who’ve seen you be sick, who’ve laughed at your disasters and frailties. People you’ve cried with, who understand your very soul, despite the jokes that might permeate that bond. To many of us, friendships are permanent, binding contracts. If we want to talk about unconditional friendships, that’s where politics don’t matter. Values do, but not formal politics.

I have friends who don’t share my politics, but I love them dearly. For people to confuse that and the kinds of relationships we are offered in Parliament is absolutely bizarre. They aren’t the same thing. So, back to the Pidcock furore: what are you going to answer, when a journalist asks you, in this place, in this context, whether you’d be friends with a Tory MP? The same Tory MPs who you’ve just faced across the Commons floor, and watched them cackle and whoop at benefit cuts. Are you being serious?

It won’t just be Laura, or her staff who will feel like this: it’s a natural expression of the changing Labour Party. New Labour MPs, whether new or not, whether young or old, would slot into the expected culture a lot easier than those who come from the outside in, as it were. If the 2015 Labour intake included many people from outside the political bubble, then the 2017 intake took it one stage further. One of the most incredible consequences of the unexpectedly good result in June 2017 was the entry of a new generation of MPs, which almost accidently ended up being exactly what the Labour Party needed: MPs like Marsha de Cordova, Laura Smith and Ruth George are a huge breath of fresh air, blowing like a wind through the Westminster corridors.

Obviously, we should all expect political capital to be made out of any sense that the mould is being broken. There are many people in that place with a real interest in preserving the status quo. So, the zealous right-wing press, licking their lips, helped by a strengthened hard right on the Tory benches, have attempted to portray this quiet revolution, this slow gathering of MPs who are truly representative of the population at large rather than a political establishment, as something sinister.

Irony died when the Express bemoaned the “politics of hate” seeping into Westminster. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else. Those purveyors of hate, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph joined in, whipping up a real storm, almost betraying their fear in the process. The media are central in this, because they are as much of this dysfunctional culture as the politicians themselves. They hang around the cafes and bars like a set of charming, ingratiating hyenas. And they have a deep interest in perpetuating these paper thin, fake friendships of convenience. The truth is, though, that they wouldn’t know the true meaning of friendship if it smacked them in the face.

So, in some ways, the whole Pidcock #Torygate furore is nothing more than a terrible miscommunication. What they meant to ask Laura, and other working class MPs elected over the last three years, wasn’t “are you going to be friends with Tories?” Literally, who cares about that? No, what they meant to ask was, “are you going to conform?”, “are you going to bow down to the status quo” to the power of the media and the mush of centrism? And the answer to that (the real question that the journalists wanted to ask) I’m pleased to say, is a firm ‘no’. And what a refreshing, nourishing and inspiring thought that is.

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Square pegs and round holes, organisers and factionalists; why the Corbyn left has two projects on its hands

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Ten things you need to be a good organiser:

Organising is an entirely different concept to factionalising: it’s a much more risk-based enterprise. Organising is outward facing, ambitious and democratic by nature. With organising, you don’t necessarily know the outcome – and you may have to adapt your strategy as you go along. True organising welcomes that uncertainty as the building block of creativity.

  1. You have to like people:

The starting point for any good organiser is that you like people. You want to be amongst people. You enjoy conversation, debate and challenge. This is the lifeblood of the movement and shouldn’t be seen as a threat.

  1. In turn, you have to be liked by other people:

It’s important that you are liked and trusted by your fellow activists. That relationship must be developed over time by a consistent approach and a constant engagement with people, whether you agree with them or not. Simple likeability is a key strength in organising.

  1. You need to give power away:

A good organiser will not suck up power, but seek to give it away. That means looking for succession plans, delegating properly and setting up structures that will eventually ‘do you out of a job’. That is a sad fact of life for an effective organiser: the better you do your job, the more likely you are to be redundant.

  1. You need to work inclusively:

It sounds a bit woolly, but in order to build organisation, you need to work inclusively. This means being open about your decision-making process, bringing more people into that process and making sure that barriers are broken down for easy participation across the board – even if that makes the job of organising temporarily more difficult.

  1. You need to be able to listen:

Trade union organisers are taught that in conversations with potential activists or members, they should be talking 30% of the time, and listening 70% of the time. It might make you feel important to be dominating a conversation, but it’s ultimately self-defeating, because those doing the ‘listening’ are slowly switching off.

  1. You must believe in collectives:

‘There’s no I in team’ is a bit of a cliché, but in terms of movement building, it’s absolutely bang on. The work should be collectively organised, but the rewards doled out collectively too. It’s important to keep an eye on this constantly, and safeguard against empire building, because there will be the temptation for one organiser or more to think ‘I deserve more than this’ and break the collective ethos. Once this has happened, it’s hard to go back.

  1. You need to trust people:

One of the key principles of democratic organising is a deep trust in people. Without being naïve, it’s crucial for good movement building that organisers trust their fellow activists and seek to bring them into positions of real power. This is how we build.

  1. You need to have good people skills:

It’s an absolute rule that a good organiser must have good people skills. This can be at the micro level – i.e being able to support people personally in difficult circumstances; but also at a macro level – in being able to command the support of collectives because you have proved yourself to be trustworthy and supportive.

  1. You should be able to identify good leaders:

Movement building and organising is all about developing structures, but importantly this is about people, not bureaucracy. A decent organiser will have a good instinct, be a good judge of character and be able to identify people they can rely on. Once they’ve identified them, a good organiser will also hand over power and responsibility, safe in the knowledge that they’ve spotted a good leader.

  1. You must see the big picture:

An organiser will not become too bogged down in the detail of personal antagonisms or sectarian conflicts. They will keep their eye on the big prize – which is building the coalition that will deliver victories. Anything that gets in the way of that isn’t worth sweating the small stuff on.

 

Ten things you need to be a good factionalist:

Factionalism isn’t necessarily organising’s poor relation, though it’s inevitably seen as the ‘dark arts’ in comparison. It’s just a very different thing. It tends to be hidden, taking place below the surface, and by definition, not so focused on ‘democracy’. Its results may be “grassroots” but it’s not primarily concerned with big movements, but small wins, incrementally winning the war.

  1. You must have authority:

A factionalist must have ultimate authority over the group. This can be won by charisma or by instilling a system of favours and fear. Either way, people must respect your authority.

  1. People should be willing to do as you say:

You don’t want to get bogged down in debate as a rule. The group that you’ve constructed should accept the tasks that you’ve decided as priorities and get on with them. Anything else is wasted time.

  1. You need to keep power close, and confined to a small group:

Because of your mode of operation, it’s necessary to keep your group small and close. You can’t afford to be ‘done over’ so it’s best to confine the power you dole out to a small group. The larger the unit, the more danger there is of betrayal.

  1. You need to work exclusively:

Operating a faction is all about developing a close group, keeping them loyal and close. Conversely, this involves identifying your enemies and excluding them through several methods – whatever it takes. In most cases, the ends can used to justify the means.

  1. You need to be able to give orders to a team:

As a faction leader, you need a team, that is without doubt. But there should be a strict hierarchy to the team. A factionalist can’t be doing with a ‘flatarchy’. Ultimately, the leader must be able to hand out orders, without too much dissent. That’s how factions get things done.

  1. You must develop a loyal band:

Ideally, the power that a factionalist wields shouldn’t be imposed, but should be generated by the loyalty that they inspire. Conflict within the group should be minimised and loyalty can and should be generated by favours and patronage. Get the followers to do your work.

  1. You should never trust people beyond a small circle:

Trust is a major issue for a proper factionalist. It’s given out very sparingly and with an awful lot of caution. Once someone has proven themselves to be trusted, then they are part of the ‘inner circle’ and we are rolling, but until then, keep a watching brief – with everyone.

  1. You must be single-minded:

The organisation is everything. Created in a tight, disciplined way, it can be used to gain influence in ways unimaginable in a more democratic operation. A good factionalist needs to keep their eye on the prize, which isn’t a principled politics, but influence. Sometimes, that equates to manoeuvres which people will wail about, but the focus is always on power.

  1. You need to know your friends:

To run a faction, you can forget about ‘mass politics’. That’s a fantasy: this is about a select band of friends, people who would go over the top for you. It’s important to know your friends and keep them close, even if that means forgoing a bigger, more chaotic movement.

  1. You must keep an eye on the detail:

With factionalising, the devil is in the detail. It’s about close, small level organising – punching above your weight by understanding the micro politics. If you don’t understand this, there is a chance you will lose your focus and become an organiser.

So, what is the purpose of pointing out these distinctions? Well, it’s a matter of square pegs in round holes. If you have a factionalist in the position of an organiser, you have a problem. They simply can’t do that job. So much so, that they are likely to ruin the organising project through their factionalist practice. Similarly, if you place an organiser in a factionalist’s place, you are likely to get a fudge – because they won’t understand the necessity to build closely. But there are two definite projects here. If we, as a left, mistake the two things, if we fail to see the distinction, we are in big trouble – and unlikely to be able to move beyond the present confusion and chaos. We must be strategic and clever: stop trying to force square pegs into round holes.

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