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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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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