Review: A Walk on Part

Stage adaptation of Chirs Mullin's diary is visionary, worrisome and totally endearing.

A Walk on Part at the Soho Arts Theatre is adapted from the diaries of former Labour MP Chris Mullin, and tells the epic journey of New Labour, from the 1997 general election to their defeat in 2010.

As with any performance dealing heavily in politics, it runs the risk of being dry. But Michael Chaplin’s adaptation, in this case directed by Max Roberts, is fast-paced, witty and insightful, all the while managing to retain Mullin’s voice: visionary, worrisome and totally endearing.

The cast comprises of five actors, but the central figure is Mullin, played superbly by John Hodgkinson with his wonky posture, mad professor hair and clothes that don’t quite fit. His resemblance to Quentin Letts’ Mullin description is uncanny: “His trousers flap eminently around his shins, his sparse hair is unkempt, his spectacles could do with a polish, and his manner of speaking is gentlemanly. He resembles a deckchair that’s been left out all winter.” Hodgkinson narrates the plot, snapping effortlessly between monologue and dialogue and knowing Mullin’s story inside out.

The other actors multi-role between various political and media figures, the most notable being Hywel Morgan as Tony Blair, whose intonation, gesture, and facial movements give Dead Ringers’ John Culshaw a run for his money, and Joe Caffrey as Gordon Brown, complete with stoic frown and signature jaw-drop. Others are John Prescott (or “JP” to Mullin), Geoff Hoon, Claire Short, and Tony Benn. All the cast wear a hint of Labour’s red: a tie, a flash of shirt, shoes.

The stage is bare other than two rows of four chairs, accommodating the actors when they aren’t in role, and a stack of 90s television screens embedded in the back wall, which provide the dates of Mullin’s entries, bookmarking the episodes in British political history.

But their function goes further than that: when Blair enters Downing Street, his smirk and wave is reflected and multiplied in each screen; when the Guardian’s Michael White calls Mullin on the 11 September 2001 and tells him to turn on his TV, that all-too familiar image of aeroplanes crashing into the World Trade Centre silences the auditorium. 9/11 was, for so many people, beyond comprehension and even reality; we associate the event with what we saw on TV, and Roberts’ interpretation is a nod to the sensationalism of its coverage.

The TVs provide general illustration to the plot: stills of the House of Commons during PMQs, various MPs, and humorously, Steve Bell’s magnificent cartoons, namely the infamous Gordon Brown, slumped and defeated in a boxing ring after the 2010 election, and the depiction of David Cameron with a condom stretched over his head.

But their illustration does not go as far as to draw attention away from the action. Mullin’s diaries reveal an awful lot about himself and the Labour Party. He is wholly idealistic, voting against the invasion of Iraq and confronting former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon on the targeting of civilians in Afghanistan. In such a cynical age, it is refreshing to experience an MP who is non-deferential, speaking his mind and following his heart. But even Mullin becomes pessimistic about what he can achieve as a politician: from the disillusionment as a junior minister in Prescott’s environment office, to his inability to improve the lives of Ukranian asylum seekers, to his work as Africa Minister at the Foreign Office.

We are also fed snippets of Mullin’s family life. His devotion is touching, particularly given the Westminster context of seedy affairs and marital neglect. We witness his mother’s health deteriorating and his daughters growing up, and when he finally steps down, it is for his wife.

Chaplin has tweaked Mullin’s diaries to highlight the symmetry between past events and what we know today. As soon as Labour is elected, there is the question of Rupert Murdoch and the Competition Bill - John Major goes so far as to say that Murdoch has “done such damage to this country”. Mullin is outspoken in his recognition that a life of consumerism is not sustainable for the economy nor the environment, a conviction all the more urgent as we are steeped in both financial and climate chaos. His reluctance to go into war is all the more poignant more than ten years since the invasion of Afghanistan, and when the British death toll surpassed 400 earlier this year.

A Walk On Part is an excellent dramatisation of Mullin’s revealing diaries that tell us a great deal about the political landscape of the past 15 years, captivating the audience in a world that is all too relevant today.

A Walk On Part is at the Soho Arts Theatre until 14 July

Tracy Gillman, Hywel Morgan and John Hodgkinson on stage. Image by Simon Annand
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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.