Eric Joyce on Unite in Falkirk, life in the Westminster wilderness and "the whacking"

Caroline Crampton interviews Eric Joyce MP.

Eric Joyce has the look of a man who is enjoying life. It’s a state so rarely seen in an MP that when he cheerily greets me, in his crumpled T-shirt with a well-thumbed hardback under his arm, I panic that I’ve turned up for the wrong interview.

For over a year now, Joyce has been something of a stranger, a party-of-one, in the place where for more than a decade he was on the periphery of power. A former army major, he became a staunchly Blairite member of the Parliamentary Labour Party after his election in 2000, holding a number of junior posts. All of this changed in February 2012 with the incident he refers to throughout our chat as “the whacking”, when he is said to have shouted, “There are too many Tories in here,” before assaulting several fellow MPs and their guests in the Strangers’ Bar of the House of Commons. Since then, having resigned from the party and pledged to stand down at the next general election, he’s walked alone.

Now, as the process to select his successor in Falkirk has turned into a debate about the relationship between Labour and the unions, Joyce once more finds himself at the centre of events. The way he sees it, his constituency has become the site of a proxy war within left-of-centre politics. A larger battle between Unite, Britain’s biggest union, and the party leadership over Labour’s broad acceptance of the coalition’s austerity measures was being fought through the Falkirk selection process. As he puts it: “[Unite] has decided that the Labour Party isn’t sufficiently in its mode, so they’ve decided to change the Labour Party by means of putting in their own officials.”

Having said that, Joyce is not sure that the “Falkirk scandal”, as the media quickly named it, is as much of a problem for future relations between the union and the party as has been suggested. He’s not even sure that “scandal” is the right term. “A scandal is me whacking a few Tories in the bar, or more classically someone sleeping with a prostitute or a Russian . . . There’s a structural logic and a political logic to all of this.”

He believes the problem isn’t with trade unions in general, or even Unite in particular. “Unite can be relatively quickly fixed. I think it’s a very small number of personalities . . . It just seems like a very unsubtle charge at the Labour Party.”

At the heart of the problem is Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, Joyce says; the strategy he has followed doesn’t make political sense.

“I don’t know if Len’s thick – maybe he’s thick. It might simply be there’s a wee cabal . . . But either way, I think McCluskey will have to back off completely and accept defeat or risk his position in the union.”

Given that it was the trade unions that carried Ed Miliband over the line in the Labour leadership election in 2010, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the political sphere who thinks that what has happened in Falkirk is a good thing for the party leader. Apart from Eric Joyce, that is, who suggests Miliband should just “turn on them”.

“Once he’s come through it, he’ll be more decisive,” Joyce assures me. Winking, he continues: “In that case it’s maybe – no, certainly a good thing that all this happened.”

Joyce’s blunt, optimistic honesty can be very persuasive, particularly when he talks about himself. Whatever happens in Falkirk, one thing is certain – he won’t be in Westminster come 2015. He accepts he’s “not fantastically suited” to the life of an MP.

“It’s the same with a lot of people who come into politics without any kind of political background . . . The things that are regarded as virtues [in Westminster] are the opposite from my experience in the army. It’s virtuous here to tell one person something and tell someone else slightly different. And if you don’t, it’s seen as a bit of a beginner’s mistake. Whereas in the army, that would make you a two-faced sod.”

Still, since “the whacking”, he finds himself at liberty to think and speak honestly (his Twitter feed is a mix of cute pictures of bunnies and ruminations on union politics).

Asked to expand on what happened that night in the bar, he says: “It was just like, fucking hell, a bit of a shocker.” There have been subsequent incidents, including another arrest after another altercation in a Commons bar in March, but no action has been taken.

“Everything I do is in the public eye, hence the things that get reported and nothing comes of them. From my point of view, infamy is like fame without the money.”

Despite this, he remains cheerful. “Life has been quite good. I’ve voted Labour, not that there was much voting going on. I’m happy in a relationship and all that stuff [his partner is the Sunday Times columnist India Knight]. Behaviourally, it was sort of a midlife crisis . . . But one has to just try and move on from these things.”

Does he have any regrets?

“If I was starting now, I’d be pretty optimistic about my political career, because I’ve learned enough. But now? It’s screwed.”

The briefest glance at his record confirms this analysis – politics has moved on and left him behind.

As he escorts me from his office, happily chatting about plans for the weekend with an air of relaxed contentment, I can’t help but think that if this is what life in the political wilderness is like, it doesn’t look half bad.

Eric Joyce. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.