"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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.