What Nick Griffin and Stella Creasy's tweets taught me

From the BNP leader's praise for Dark Side of the Moon to the Labour MP's Twitter spat with Frankie Boyle, we're being reminded that our politicians are humans.

Over the last couple of days a few things have happened which have made me think about the relationship between politicians and the public. They are:

1) Nick Griffin telling his Twitter followers that "today is the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd's brlliant (sic) Dark Side of the Moon. One of first albums I ever bought."

2) Blue eyed Tory miscreant Bernard Jenkin going on the Today programme to complain, in the wake of a low turn-out in the Eastleigh by-election, about the inability of a "managerial class" in Westminster politics to engage with the electorate.

3) Loan shark-hunting Labour promoter of dubious musical tastes Stella Creasy "calling out" (ugh) James Arthur abuser/lookalike Frankie Boyle for tweeting that Tory head girl smug machine Claire Perry must "Have a clitoris like a toddler's leg hanging out of a pram" during her appearance on Question Time.

Are they connected? I don't know. Let's deal with the three in turn:

1) First reaction: fuck me. Second reaction: I wonder if he got stoned while listening to "Us and Them" and got the wrong end of the stick. Third: That album came out when he was 14, allegedly the same year he read Mein Kampf. Other albums out that year: Innervisions. Let's Get It On (I'm guessing he didn't like those). Aladdin Sane. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Quadrophenia. There's one hell of a Venn diagram you could draw there.

Anyway, this is all part of something the format of Twitter offers. In a weird way, we're seeing a little bit more of our politicians than we used to - in this case, perhaps more than we want. We're being reminded they're humans, and that humans can hold political views that are independent of an otherwise mundane existence. As we've seen, Gerry Adams tweets about baking, flowers and his Bichon Frise. It's an interesting correlative to the football crowd-style political discourse we see on the internet whereby people with conservative views are soulless Emperor Palpatine types and anyone on the left is basically Neil from The Young Ones. It makes us remember that politicians hold the views they do because they want to do good (even if they end up achieving the opposite), and that's a good starting point for debate. It makes it more civilised, and thereby more productive.

And what do you know? This leads us to Bernard Jenkin.

2) I was watching Twitter while listening to this: the commentariat were lapping it up. And I felt there was something slightly unedifying about middle class white guys getting excited about another middle class white guy's complaints that the middle class white guys with whom he primarily works don't appeal to the wider electorate. Especially - and this is the big thing - when you consider the reasons he was actually citing: he had a good point that Westminster had been unimpressive in its response to the Mid Staffs report, but otherwise he was yammering on about "red tape", health and safety, and European financial regulation. In other words, all those core Tory voter issues that failed for the likes of IDS. It was just another backbench Tory jab at the coalition, disguised as something else entirely. I found it trite.

3) This (sort of) leads us to the Creasy/Boyle debate. Which was genuinely fascinating.

I'll try to distil it as it was all rather muddled by various threads. Creasy asked Boyle "Do you agree there is any damage to be done in casualising such graphic aggression about women in public arena?" Boyle responded: "The real danger is from people in politics towards the public, not the other way round...I'm saying politicians in general are often hostile to their society & yet fear ridicule."

Creasy disagreed: "As the great freddie mercury (sic) taught us all ridicule is nothing to be scared of....a society scarred by misogyny though..." Boyle accepted this was a problem, but claimed it wasn't relevant to the joke because "The idea that sexual imagery related to women is sexist is inherently conservative." So Creasy responded: "As a feminist do you think you are promoting equality & tackling objectification of women describing someone in that way?"

And this lead us to the germane bit. Boyle asked: "That's the intention. Do you think belonging to a party that seems suspect on immigration/asylum that you can promote equality?" Creasy said there was "a disjuncture between [the] intent and the impact," of Boyle's initial comment. Boyle concluded: "I think your assessment of the impact might be wrong. Politicians can live in a bit of a bubble."

Some thoughts:

First, in terms of who's right and wrong, no one: they both make interesting arguments. That said, throughout the debate, Creasy kept retweeting the responses she was getting from Boyle's followers. A couple of them seemed to prove her point: "Looking at her on [Question Time] I can see she may suffer from Camel Toe"; "so sexism is pointing out that women have a clitoris? Or are you bitter that no one has ever found yours?" I was inclined to take her side on the whole wider impact thing.

Second, I found Boyle's claim that politicians "can live in a bit of a bubble" bloody hilarious. Full disclosure: I used to work with him for a bit. He seemed nice enough. But if you asked him who I was, he wouldn't have a clue. And this is because I worked behind the scenes on a TV show he was on and he was The Talent. That's: The Talent. And I will tell you that the culture behind the cameras is to treat The Talent like a Maharajah, right up until the moment they fall out of favour. I'm not saying he doesn't know anything about ordinary people's lives - after all, stand ups have to engage with the public all the time, especially on the way up. I'm just saying he's making this point to the wrong MP, and he's probably the wrong person to be making it.

But the fact he can argue this without being called out (ugh, again) tells us a lot about how we see our politicians. In terms of her relationship with the voting public, Creasy's a great MP: constantly on social media, tweeting out pictures of this or that Walthamstow event and, though she won't thank me for leading us back to Mr Griffin, talking about music. It might get a bit cloying, but it gives a sense of transparency and engagement that's a million miles away from moaning about issues close to your heart in the early hours of a Saturday morning when Radio 4 can find a slot for you. Journalists these days are expected to build their profile through social media: it's basically a work requirement. Today, it should be the same for politicians.

I'm not going to pretend we'll solve the problem of a disengaged electorate at a stroke with a few tweets - but it's time our politicians got the message and followed Creasy's lead in how they engage with us. We care about what's going on on our doorstep. We want to engage with human beings. Yet what do we get? We get this, or variants of it, every day on our rolling news channels and radio stations. Still, I suppose we do all know the strikes are wrong now.

It's a sad truth, but a far-right winger with a liking for prog rock is almost easier to understand than a man standing in front of a camera and repeating himself, over and over again.

Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.