What does ‘representation’ actually mean, anyway?

Laura Commons breathe

One of the broader issues raised by Laura Pidcock’s comments about not befriending Tory MPs is that it’s clear that many people just don’t get representative democracy. This has also come up over Brexit. I don’t think it’s people’s own fault, but a symptom of the bland, centrist politics encouraged by our political establishment (including New Labour) for many years, which is now getting a big kick up the arse by a more combative politics represented by the 2015-17 intake of Labour MPs and a more polarised political culture.

Because of that polarisation currently happening, the idea of representation is now back on the agenda. How do our MPs actually represent us? But because of the almost depoliticised atmosphere generated by the middle in British politics, confusion reigns – about what party politics means and how our representatives do their jobs.

Three things feature.

Firstly, people see Parliament (or rather, the corridors of power at Westminster) as the arena where policy is “thrashed out”, or negotiated. They often compare it to a work place. So, of course, the story goes, you need to view your fellow MPs as “work colleagues”. What sort of person would seek constant argument and confrontation at work? This idea connects very strongly with liberal, British, middle class sensibilities: that the project, in life and in politics, is to seek compromise, and work towards the best outcome – which will always be the moderate outcome.

But Parliament isn’t a workplace, not in that sense. It’s is an arena, sure, but a place where competing ideologies, mandates and political manifestos are represented. The really clever move by the centrist politicians who have dominated over the last 20 years or so was to hide that fact and present it as common sense. The result was that private financial interests, the backbone of those centrist politics, were represented very well, thank you. Post-2008, and in the era of Bernie and Corbyn, that clearly does not wash any more.

Secondly, and related, there is this idea that politicians are there to represent the views, very directly, of their constituents. This is a bit more of a tricky one, because in some senses it’s true. MPs do represent every one of their constituents. They can’t, realistically, select only those who voted for them to represent. But it very much depends on what you mean by “represent”. If that means the MP taking on, uncritically, the majority view of their constituency on every matter, then no. That would be an entirely different model of democracy (and practically, would have to depend on referenda on each of those issues to ensure accuracy).

Representative party democracy works in a very different way. A candidate in an election, stands on a policy platform, ideally presented in a clear manifesto, but also by what they say during the campaign. A party candidate stands under that party name, associated with a set of policies. Their job is to explain those policies to the electorate during the election campaign. If enough people trust what they say and enough people put a cross a cross next to their name, that candidate becomes the MP – on that programme. That’s the deal.

The idea that MPs are there just to uncritically reflect every individual issue in the constituency is wrong. That’s not representative democracy. No MP in the history of Parliament has ever done that. A Labour MP, voted in on a clear Labour manifesto, needs combine that policy programme with the interests of their constituents the best they can. Ultimately, they will be judged on how well they do that at the next General Election, when everyone gets the chance to vote them in / out again.

Thirdly, and again linked, is a real misunderstanding of the function of parties. I remember sitting in a local pub a few months ago with a bunch of Labour socialists. We were talking about getting our message out through social media, when we noticed a guy listening in. He was clearly itching to say something. He told us that he was appalled by what we were saying, and that somehow we were ‘manipulating’ ordinary people, who should just be left alone to “make their own minds up”.

Apart from the very obvious point about the influence of the media, it struck me that this is symptomatic of the way many people see politics, that they are a little frightened of what they see as “confrontational” politics, based around ideology. Again, some if this has been fostered by the anti-politics of New Labour (at a national and local level), but also by a suspicion of political ideas generally. This hasn’t always been the case. Both the Winter of Discontent and the Thatcherism which followed brought to the fore a more combative, working class grassroots politics, but it was muffled by Kinnock and Blair. I think the rise of Corbyn and the movements around him is changing this, but we still have a long way to go.

So, when Laura Pidcock comes into Parliament and says that she is there to represent her community and her class, not play Parliamentary games; when she declares that she will not give the Tories a moment to breathe, she’s not only coming up against the sneering of the right-wing establishment, but a more general cynicism about politics: that somehow there’s something inherently suspicious about someone who has a clear ideological standpoint. The former is to be expected, and welcomed. It’s good that the Tories and their chums in the media are upset. The latter is our real challenge.

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#Torygate: ten things that Laura Pidcock didn’t say, and five that she did.

When Laura Pidcock said, quite casually, in an interview with Skwawkbox, that she had “no intention” of being friends with Tory MPs – the same MPs she’d witnessed cheering welfare cuts over the summer – she was castigated in the mainstream media, on social media accounts belonging to political commentators from the liberal left to the hard right. Not just once, but relentlessly, for weeks and months. The ferocity of the attacks, and the wild misrepresentation of her words, was a bit of a shock – especially when directed at an MP of just a couple of month’s standing. But it shouldn’t have been: because the political-media nexus which dominates Parliament cannot allow a challenge, not when they’re this insecure and frightened. The slippage from the specific point about the cosy Westminster club to an attack on all Tory voters, on women, on people’s family members, was all very deliberate – a brazen attempt to twist a perfectly natural reaction to entrenched power into something sinister, aggressive and threatening. It has been a brilliant case study of how the political establishment protects its own. Thank you for the lesson, friends and comrades, it’s been most educational. But to set the record straight, here are ten things that Laura Pidcock has never said, and five that she did. Just so we’re clear.

1. “I despise the 40% of the population who voted Conservative at the last General Election.”

The first thing to say, on a point of accuracy, is that 40% of the British population did not vote Conservative on June the 8th 2017. If you take those eligible to vote, only 29% voted Conservative. If you take the British population as a whole, it is 21%. However – and this is the important point – Laura never said she despised anyone, never mind the Conservative voting public. Not 40%, not 29% nor 21%. Never said it. It would take something to have been gone through a selection process, a hard election campaign, get down to Parliament and give a large slice of your potential electorate the middle finger. Sounds ridiculous? That’s because it is.

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2. “I hate Tories, viscerally”

Laura’s comments have been carefully and skilfully conflated with some moral outrage over the so-called “politics of hate”. It’s a model of media and political spin. Normally this “hatred” is deliberately confused with some fairly robust criticism of the Tory government from activists who are on the sharp end of Tory cuts, but occasionally it does stray into pure bile. No doubt this is not helpful, no matter how understandable it is. But let’s just be clear: none of those things have come from Laura, though the press (liberal and hard right) have had a pretty good go and making that one stick.

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3. “I think the Tories are evil.”

People have the right to employ quasi-religious labels to describe their political enemies, rather than discuss structural inequality, policy and the ideological trajectory of the Tory Party. But Laura never did. In his extraordinarily offensive article in the Times, where he tortuously tried to link Laura’s words to the Stasi, Daniel Finkelstein deliberately blurred those lines by complaining: “it’s never nice to be thought evil by someone.”. The problem being that Laura never did call Danny or anyone else “evil”. Again, this is another attempt to muddy the waters of what was said to nail a new MP. It’s totally transparent and pretty reprehensible.

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4. “I will not represent Tory voters in my constituency.

This is the most pernicious slippage that we’ve seen: because it calls into question Laura’s professionalism, not to mention political judgement. 16,000 people voted Conservative in North West Durham in June. No matter what we might think of that, an MP has a binding duty to represent those constituents. Not to agree with them, but to listen, to communicate with them and to take up case work on their behalf. As an MP, Laura has never even suggested that she would vet constituents before representing them. Categorically.

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5. “I won’t speak to a Tory MP.”

Not speaking to fellow MPs would not only be immature, but make Laura’s job very hard indeed. This includes sharing a joke, smiling, being polite to MPs on the other side of the House.  All of these things are separate from being “friends”, unless you have a very superficial view of friendship. So the next time she is pictured talking to a Tory, or asking a question of David Gauke, or taking part in an all-party group or select committee, this is not “hypocrisy”. Because she never said it.

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6. “It’s not ok to be friends with a Tory”

In the wake of Laura’s comments, the liberal press in particular was full of hand-wringing articles about whether it was ok to be friends with a Tory. It was good click-baity, media fodder, but pretty irrelevant to the context of saying that you wouldn’t spend your time in Parliament socialising with Tory MPs. I don’t know if anyone has realised, but Parliament is not a normal workplace, nor cultural space. Your Tory-voting mate, uncle or gran hasn’t been spending the last 7 years forcing through austerity, sanctions, the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit & the Trade Union Bill. Surprisingly, Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for North West Durham, has no opinion on who you socialise with. In fact, during the interview with Emma Barnett on Radio 5, Laura revealed that she has a Tory-voting aunt whom she loves a lot. People who were surprised had completely missed the point.

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7. “It’s not ok to kiss a Tory”

In one of the most astonishing spinning exercises known to humankind, I spotted a well-shared tweet of a picture of two men kissing at Manchester Pride, with Laura tagged in. What made it worse, was that it seemed to be coming from a Labour account (albeit a prominent Progressite). On what level of liberal logic would someone not wanting to spend their social time with Tories in Parliament (the vast majority of whom have done everything they can to block equality legislation over decades), equate to stopping two gay men snog over the political divide? The inference was clear, but it was pure bullshit

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8. “Screw the kinder, gentler politics.”

Many political commentators tried to tie what Laura said to the disintegration of Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a “kinder, gentler politics”. Firstly, some of this has been subject to slippage in the first place: a deliberate misunderstanding of what he meant. It wasn’t about the continuation of the Blairite mush in the middle, of consensus politics made in Westminster, without much reference at all to the world outside that bubble. It was about respect, not making bitter, personal attacks and a focus on policy. What it categorically can’t be about is letting Tory MPs off the hook for those policies which have destroyed so many lives and communities. Unless Jeremy became a liberal while no one was looking. Anyone who has met Laura personally will know that she is one of the most courteous, friendly and respectful people around. She just doesn’t want to booze with Tory MPs. Deal with it.

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9. “Tory women are my enemy”

Again, it’s important firstly to establish where the conflation is happening here. A clear-cut context, talking about Tory women MPs specifically, and their culpability for the cuts they have voted through, promoted and cheered, is misreported, time and time again, as describing all Tory women. That enables the liberal and hard right press to portray Laura as an “anti-feminist” (with dollops of hard left / Corbynista ice cream from the likes of Guido Fawkes, of course). A further confusion is added by rolling in the personal angle, when Laura had clearly been describing these Tory MPs as her ideological enemy. But in fact, she was making a political point: that she wouldn’t be doing her representative job if she didn’t view them as ideological enemies. Turn it on it’s head: Tories who’ve inflicted such misery on North West Durham are my ideological friends. Really?

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10. “I won’t ever work with politicians from other parties”

Lots of things are going on here. Firstly, an MP will always seek to work collaboratively. In collecting signatures for the Universal Credit letter to Gauke, Laura sought the support of Tory MPs whose constituencies were affected by the rollout. None responded positively, and this was before #Torygate kicked off in earnest. But what this is really about is alternative theories of power. Many people within the Westminster bubble, across the political spectrum, still believe that the real business of politics is done at Parliament, by persuading MPs from opposing parties that your view is just and moral, thrashing out a deal. There is another view of power: that it lies in building and organising our movement, our unions, our communities and expressing that power through representation and government. It is the difference between enacting the manifesto, and Labour Party policy decided at conference, and the “middle way” designed in the private rooms of Westminster by New Labour. Laura Pidcock has firmly nailed her colours to the mast. And that’s why she is being hammered.

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Five things that Laura Pidcock did say:

1. [talking of her women Labour MP colleagues]: “We have a WhatsApp group! They’re all really supportive, answering questions about anything from procedure to women’s issues.” She wouldn’t, however, “hang out with Tory women” who she tells me are “no friends of mine” and “an enemy to lots of women”. Article: http://www.refinery29.uk/2017/08/167058/female-mps-2017

2. [again, talking about Tory MPs]: “Whatever type they are, I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them. I have friends I choose to spend time with. I go to parliament to be a mouthpiece for my constituents and class – I’m not interested in chatting on.” Article: http://skwawkbox.org/2017/08/11/one-of-labours-new-rising-stars-talks-class-westminster-and-the-enemy/

3. [talking about the Government] “I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral – I’m not interested in being cosy. I hate those Tory questions that start with ‘Does the PM agree with me..?’ – when one Tory MP stood up and asked one I told him I think those questions are disgraceful. His response was ‘you mustn’t be a very good MP‘!” (article above)

4. [talking about the Government]; “The idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional when you see the effect they have on people – a nation where lots of people live in a constant state of fear whether they even have enough to eat.” (article above)

5. [in response to initial outrage being generated by the comments above]; “Just to be clear, I represent everyone regardless of who they voted for. I don’t ask and don’t care who people voted for if they need help from us, they will get it. I have reached out to the Tory MPs several times already and also asked them to sign my letter asking for a pause to Universal Credit, no response. Of course I will work with a Tory if it is going to benefit the people in my constituency, my point was that I have no intention of being their friends. We are ideological opponents. It would be disingenuous to suggest I can happily sit there and have light hearted chats with people who are ambivalent to the suffering of my constituents, any relationship is purely functional.”

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And that’s the point. Laura Pidcock, just like Jeremy Corbyn, is more than happy to defend what she actually said. It would be pretty dishonest not to, wouldn’t it? If you check the interviews since #Torygate, you’ll see that she hasn’t once backed away from what she said or what she believes. But what we should never accept are the blatant lies, slippages and spin of Tory MPs, their chums in the media and their cheerleaders on social media – it’s a form of bullying. Not particularly sophisticated or clever, but an intolerance based on privilege. If we’re going to change British politics, we are going to have to confront that establishment power – to look it in the face and tell it to screw itself. To do otherwise is to take a step back towards New Labour and defeatism, and we’re better than that.

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