Half-arsed: coalition MPs in the Commons debating chamber. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

A drunken mob of men is terrifying – but far worse is a half-arsed mob of MPs

What’s most galling about listening to the swinish squealing of our £70K-per-annum senators is how blissfully unaware of their behaviour they seem to be. 

It was difficult to contain one’s emotions: after 42 years’ service the Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, has retired. A fluffy-wigged and bearded presence who sat below the Speaker dispensing advice on procedural matters, and who heretofore made little or no impression on the wider world, Sir Robert was given a lengthy round of applause by MPs following the reading of his resignation letter. I say it was difficult to contain one’s emotions – but I wasn’t even particularly near the chamber; I was lying in bed in my house about two miles away, listening to this effusion on Radio 4’s Today in Parliament. True, during particularly rambunctious Commons sessions (when, for example, Sally Bercow has forgotten to wipe the banana cream from her husband’s mouth), I can quite clearly hear the baying of our representatives: it rises even above the demented wail of police sirens, and the chunter of jets on the Heathrow flight path. It used to be that MPs were required to live within the sound of the division bell; nowadays a reasonable test of proximity would be whether they’re capable of hearing their colleagues’ barracking when abed.

Sir Robert’s letter praised our members of parliament; he said if only the country understood the absolutely terrific and selfless work they did, and how their great integrity was all that stood between us and an unfettered executive, we’d cease our bleating about their expenses-fiddling, influence-peddling and general loutishness. This wasn’t what he said verbatim, but it was the gist of it, and it went down extremely well with the flattered – they moaned their reverent acclamation: “Hear! Hear!” they cried, exhorting us via the state broadcaster to pay attention to how absolutely fabulous they were – and then they got on with the hard democratic graft of behaving like a bunch of minor public school boys huffing amyl nitrate. I believe it’s called Prime Minister’s Questions.

The House of Commons is the suited, booted and largely expensively educated crowd of louts that rampages at the heart of our body politic. You could have no clearer example of the crazed doublethink that typifies British public life than to look objectively upon the disjunction between the bewigged pomp of parliamentary protocol and the hair-tearing ruckus that MPs believe is integral to their “oversight”. It is nothing of the sort, naturally; rather, PMQs and other set-piece “debates” are merely a showcase for dumb macho posturing – the political equivalent of gorillas chest-beating. The vast bulk of Commons business takes place in a green leatherette desert, but once a week when the media chip up in earnest, so does the heavy mob.

A largely male, drunken and angry crowd is a scary thing, but at least it has a certain honesty about it. The affront the Commons presents to the electorate is that it’s such a half-arsed crowd. The noises they make! The collective sniggering and group moaning, the massed joshing and choruses of sneering! To heckle in a context where to do so is to break a profound social taboo – well, that has a certain brio and bravery; but to heckle en masse is simply to sound like a flock of silly geese. Parliamentarians themselves, and plenty of others in the Westminster village, say the fowl honking is the very tocsin of liberty. “What do you want?” they cry. “The dull and emasculated legislatures we see on the Continent?” But this is just another example of the binary thinking characteristic of English conservatism, whereby there is only ever one alternative to the status quo. Change the first-past-the-post voting system? You must be mad: we’ll end up like the Belgians, with no government at all, so protracted will the debates be between the fissiparous parties. Inaugurate a written constitution? Are you spark-a-loco? That way lies the revolutionary Terror! And so, wearily on.

What’s most galling about listening to the bovine lowing and swinish squealing of our £70K-per-annum senators is quite how blissfully unaware of their behaviour they seem to be. Rather like small children who believe they can’t be seen so long as they cover their eyes, MPs seem to think they are de-individuated by the crowd of suiting and skirting surrounding them, and so they gibber and they groan, they throw feeble taunts and make feebler still ripostes.

It’s often said of the British parliament that it is the most exclusive club in the country; and, like all clubs, it fosters its sense of exclusiveness by subjecting new members to humiliating rituals in combination with outrageous benefits. It is this classic double bind, whereby you are allowed to behave like a fractious child while being accorded honorifics, which ensures that our so-called democracy operates according to the dynamic of any other dysfunctional family.

It is perfectly true that there are other areas of Commons business that are conducted with something like decorum, probity and efficiency. But you have to be a wonk of the first order to listen to the deliberations of the public accounts committee under its redoubtable chair, Margaret Hodge. Ms Hodge may well call warped bankers to account for selling off the Royal Mail for a mess of pottage to speculator pals of the Chancellor, but as long as mob rule is all that checks our electoral tyranny (and that for only 15 minutes a week), we have no recourse from the madness of the pinstriped crowd.

Editor's note, 19 May: This article originally stated, incorrectly, that the benches in the House of Commons are red. This has been corrected to green.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Getty
Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.