“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.”
“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.