"Politicians prostitute their sense and judgment to the supreme aim of survival politically": Paul Flynn. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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“One Nation – what the f*** does that mean?”: an interview with Paul Flynn MP

Nearing three decades in parliament, leftwing firebrand Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, discusses Labour’s chances, laments modern politics, and reflects upon MPs disrespecting their elders.

“Brick by brick we’re rebuilding socialism,” smiles Paul Flynn wryly from his wheelchair as his assistant helps him back into his office from a Commons vote, “a new Jerusalem”.

It’s the Labour MP for Newport West’s grim sarcasm and florid eloquence that defines the role he plays in parliament – his website has a testimony, among many others, from the Mail’s Quentin Letts emblazoned across the top in bold red letters: “Magnificently rude”.

Known as a principled but stubborn leftwinger, who causes difficulty for the whips, Flynn is nevertheless more complex than just a pain in the backbench. With too many ideas for change to be dismissed as having no influence, and too much wit to be merely branded a curmudgeon, Flynn remains an arresting voice on both the green benches and the committee corridor, as a member of both the Public Administration and Home Affairs select committees.

And rather than simply being a disruptive wildcard of Westminster – in September 2012 he was kicked out of the Commons chamber for accusing Defence Secretary Philip Hammond of being a liar – Flynn has given a lot back to the parliamentary world. His sardonic and searing humorous self-help guide, How to be an MP, was the most-borrowed book from the House of the Commons library last year.

“I’m sure they [the press] were expecting it to be 50 Shades of Grey, or How to Purchase a Duck House,” his lip curls, “I’m sure they thought it was going to be something that would be damaging to MPs, and it turned out to be my worthy tract.”

As someone who has studied the (imprecise) art of being an MP so closely, and has been in parliament’s confines since 1987, Flynn surely has insight into how politicians have changed over time. I mention the modern phenomenon of career politicians, and he calmly tears them apart:

“I mean it is bleak, and they tend to be one-dimensional, and vacuous,” he replies without missing a beat. “I think it was a good thing when there were miners and farmers and factory workers here; there was a variety of experience here, and there was a depth to the place it doesn’t have now, and I think there is a superficial layer of people who live in this tiny area of politics.

“And their language is banal as well. No one talks in the way that political parties send out press releases and so on. The language being used is that of a not very bright seven-year-old. It really is sort of insulting to people.”

He gives Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership’s favourite slogan “One Nation” as an example:

“One Nation? I think it has no resonance at all, the idea of One Nation. It might have under Disraeli. It might have meant something then for Britain, but it’s not understood, and I can’t see why you’d adopt it. I mean, they trialled it out to receive any reaction from people, and just a blank, open mouthed “huh?” was the best you could get. . . ‘We are One Nation’? And what the fuck does that mean? I’m sure that’s how people feel about it –it doesn’t mean a thing does it?”

Flynn was the only Labour MP to put Ed Miliband as his fifth choice for Labour party leader in the 2010 leadership election, and he smiles slowly as he reflects on his decision:

“I didn’t realise all these things were going to be published in these long lists!” he giggles. “In the fifth column there was just one cross, which was mine. I went for his brother, who I thought had more gravitas and presence. . .”

However, he is surprisingly optimistic about Labour’s chances in the next election, saying “I think things are going with us”, and concedes that his bottom favourite leadership candidate has had “some good moments” in his role.

As one of parliament’s more senior figures, at 79, does Flynn feel it’s important to stick around (he’s said he won’t be standing down) to provide some balance in light of the new, relatively young, crop of politicians on both frontbenches? Does parliament need its oldies?

“Oh God, yes!” he nods. “The line I take is that when people say ‘you’re not as good as you used to be’ is to agree warmly: I’m not as good as I used to be, I’m much better than I used to be, as I’ve been here longer! I know everything, and I still love it, still get a real buzz of excitement from it, and love being here, in the chamber asking questions.”

Why?

“Because you’re going against this great mountain of prejudice and stupidity, the fact that you can stop it every now and again and switch it in a different direction... because the general standard of political thought is pretty basic, and I’m arrogant enough to believe that we can be better.”

Does he find that his fellow MPs respect their parliamentary elders?

“No, they’re very contemptuous. I’m referred to by other constituency members as ‘PPC’ for ‘Prospective Parliamentary Candidate’ – in my constituency it stands for ‘Poor Pathetic Cripple’, and I accept that!” he chuckles.

He describes his condition as “a bone ache I’ve been getting since I was nine”, and explains that he eschews painkillers and other medicines to avoid their side effects, adding that he has some “eccentric theories about pain”.

“If Beethoven had been on antidepressants and Mozart had been on Ritalin, we would never have heard of them. You need certain angst in life, you need something to distract yourself from it and work is the thing, and that displaces physical discomfort.”

He merrily unbuttons his shirtsleeves to show me the lumps on his elbows – “I’ll flash my bumps at you; a rare treat,” he laughs. For someone whose speeches in debates drip with dry sarcasm, he is markedly more optimistic than I expected.

Indeed, he notes how the culture of Westminster is much better compared with when he arrived, and puts this down to the increase in number of female MPs:

“Having women MPs has civilised the place to a greater extent. . . I’ve seen none of the macho posturing of boys and the ‘whose is bigger than whose else’s?’ That was depressing. It wasn’t productive. It’s much easier for women MPs to get elected these days with the lists and so on, but that generation of Jo Richardson and Audrey Wise and Barbara Castle – I mean, they had to sacrifice their family life in many cases in order to stay on in parliament. It wasn’t obligatory, but they did. But they were tougher than the average and the present lot, and the present lot certainly wouldn’t put up with the nonsense of previous generations.”

However, his ultimate conclusion about our decision-makers is a gloomy one: “They [politicians] prostitute their sense and judgment to the supreme aim of survival politically... Most political decisions are prejudice rich and evidence free... I'm all in favour of having two spots on the ballot slip, one saying ‘None of the above’ and one saying ‘Write in candidate’. . .”

With his refreshingly candid approach to political commentary, perhaps voters would do well to “write in” this one.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle