This is a government, isn’t it, that cares about workplace bullying, the exploitation of employees, the future of the family? So what would it think about the outrageous employer of Jude Jones? She is, her colleagues agree, an outstanding worker – a grafter, but also reliable and trustworthy, a woman with real ambition. But she finds the hours overwhelming. So would you: after three weeks of more than 70 hours each, she begged for a Wednesday evening off to go to her son’s school play. She was granted her wish . . . but then, at the last minute, the boss changed his mind and she was given an entirely pointless job to do instead.
This is the kind of office sadism that we associate with the sweatshops new Labour is supposed to be wiping out, or with the macho corporate banks that chew up any woman who rises too far, and which are regularly denounced by MPs. In most sectors, it would be illegal.
But this management is unlikely to be denounced by Labour because this management is Labour itself – more specifically, the government whips’ office. Jude Jones (not her real name, details disguised) is a young Labour MP.
Despite the huge majority and the extremely remote possibility of a government defeat, the whips act as though the government were on a knife-edge. In this small case, the MP knew full well that her absence in the voting lobbies would leave the government with a majority of 170 instead of 171. So what should she do? Ignore the whips and stay with her son, or go and vote? She shamefacedly confessed that she abandoned her son.
This is not a story about a handful of whingeing female MPs who won’t put in the hours. It is a tale of exhausted politicians who signed up to change the country and find themselves unable to work properly. Night after night, they are kept hanging around the Commons leaving them unable to honour family or social commitments. Is it any wonder that many MPs seem out of touch? Even ministers are not exempt. One said: “In September, when the Commons isn’t sitting, you’re in the Department doing your job and working efficiently, enjoying it. But as soon as the late-night sittings start, you’re not getting home till 11.30 or so, sometimes later, three nights a week. You have to be up at six to get through the red boxes, so you just end up knackered, always exhausted and frequently ill.”
As often as not, MPs will be advised of a “running whip” from 3pm till 10pm, and frequently beyond, when their presence in the Commons is essential. Yet many hours, sometimes whole evenings, pass without a vote: they have sat disconsolately in the tearoom, propped up the bar, or tried to catch 40 winks where they can. Whenever you find a group of Labour MPs together, they start to mutter darkly: “Something must be done about the whips.”
The strength of feeling about the whips is extraordinary: one MP described their behaviour as “sadistic and humiliating; they really enjoy their power”. Many of the new intake of MPs are incredulous at what goes on. One, Stephen Pound, says: “They’re like a group of kids playing war games, always fearing ambushes from the enemy. Well, they’re welcome to do that, I just wish they wouldn’t bully and browbeat the rest of us into having to join in.” Pound puts it down to the long-standing culture of machismo. “One whip, Jim Dowd – he pulls the wings off flies,” says Pound, “and he’d thank me for saying that.”
Another whip, Tony McNulty was seen in the lobby a few weeks ago with blood on his collar. “Cut yourself shaving?” asked a jovial MP. “Well it’s blood, yes,” answered McNulty proudly, “but it’s not mine.” McNulty used to be a nice guy, said the MP, but a year in the whips’ office and he’s already one of the secret society.
The macho culture is strange, given that the chief whip, Ann Taylor, is female. Colleagues are quick to point out that Taylor has never been one of the sisters, nor a moderniser at heart. Her view, according to one critic, is: “We’ve always done it this way, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it. Like it or lump it.”
Though male MPs are among the most vociferous complainers, this is a culture that seems almost designed to keep women out of the Commons. It was 80 years ago that the first woman MP, Nancy Astor, made her first speech in the Commons. She once told the story of how it took two years for Winston Churchill to speak to her. Why, she asked him, had he ignored her for two years? The reply was swift: “I thought if we could get rid of you, we could get rid of all the women. When a woman entered the House of Commons, I felt as though a woman had come into my bathroom, and I had nothing to protect myself with except my sponge.”
Eighty years on, there is still a little clutch of men clutching their loofahs with belligerent expressions. While the strange, unpredictable hours are tiresome and annoying for many male MPs, they make life downright impossible for women with children to look after.
This is no way to run a small company, let alone a government, and it is no surprise that several of the newly elected women MPs are thinking of throwing in the towel and not standing again.
What is puzzling is why MPs stand for it. After all, these are the people we elect to fight our corner: what hope of that if they cannot even fight their own? One MP summed it up: “It’s the most uncharacteristic thing we do. We’re used to standing up to people, facing down bullies; and yet, when it’s the whips, we think, ‘Oh my God, if I get on the wrong side of them I’ll never get a night off again’.” This is in part true. There are certainly those who seem to be more equal than others – the “club class” of the party’s elite who seem to get away with not turning up much. Then there are the other tactics: the lure of promotion, the threats of deselection, the briefing of the press against recalcitrant MPs. The dirty tricks have always gone on, and this government has no cleaner hands than past regimes.
The whips themselves argue that it is not possible to do things differently; that they simply could not get through the business otherwise. This is hard to believe. London MPs could juggle with farther-flung colleagues. And they do things very differently in Scotland and Wales, where the parliaments keep normal working hours: 9am till 5.30pm from Tuesday to Thursday, leaving Monday and Friday free as constituency days, and recesses timed to coincide with school holidays. Not surprisingly, they employ far more women.
Does you heart bleed? Of course it doesn’t. But if the job is to be done properly, and if women are ever to be fairly represented in parliament, things have to change. Efficiency? Modernisation? A democracy run by bullies for male insomniacs is hardly my idea of New Britain.