How the pundits are becoming more influential than the politicians

As Owen Jones and Evan Harris show, you can make more headway pushing your agenda from the TV studios in Millbank than the green benches over the road.

"I think Owen Jones has more influence on politics nowadays than any other Labour frontbencher. He’s everywhere".

So tweeted Iain Dale the other day in a conspicuously non-partisan piece of commentary. Now, Iain was referring to the ubiquity of Owen and his ability to pop up anywhere, anytime. But I was reminded of this tweet when I was reading Bagehot in the Economist this week, who opines on the inability of a typical backbench MP (let alone frontbench spokesperson) to have any affect on policy, or indeed on government. Bagehot cited the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston as a fairly typical example of the issue.

"In an effort to mollify Dr Wollaston, party bosses offered her a junior, unpaid job in the government, which she huffily rebuffed. In an institution that prizes loyalty above usefulness, this was a serious blot. When she then criticized the government’s complicated NHS reforms and rebelled in a vote on Europe, the stain became ineradicable. Three years into her political career, she finds herself more or less written off by her bosses. She will never be allowed anywhere near health policy. 'Maybe I was naïve', she laments. 'But I thought the whole point of being an MP was to scrutinise legislation and improve it'.”

And so it seems to have come to pass that if you really want to be out there, agenda setting and driving policy, you’d be better off campaigning on issues and popping up in the media at every conceivable opportunity, rather than being an elected representative of the people. In the Lib Dems, for example, Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge) has been consistently fighting for and voting for Lib Dem policy  on justice and security (on which he is an acknowledged expert), tuition fees and NHS reform. Yet Julian has been on the losing side on every one of those issues. Contrast that with another unelected Lib Dem who finds himself at the heart of policy making, not just in our own party or even in the coalition government, but even plonked in the leader of the opposition's office dictating legislation. Step forward Hacked Off’s Evan Harris.

Of course there are exceptions to the influence wielded by backbenchers – witness the much tweeted- piece on welfare reform by Labour MP Simon Danczuk, or the select committee work of Andrew Tyrie or Margaret Hodge. But the former seems very much the exception – and the latter about marking others homework more than anything else.

Now, I don’t decry Owen Jones and Evan Harris for furthering their beliefs from outside parliament – far from it, I take my hat off to them as they force parties to adapt to their tune, rather than vice versa.

But when elected politicians are seen as having little or no influence on policy – and you can make more headway pushing your agenda from the TV studios in Millbank than the green benches over the road – it’s little wonder that folk outside the bubble may still be interested in politics, but have little time for Westminster.

Owen Jones: coming soon to a TV screen near you.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear