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  1. Politics
  2. Media
9 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

People in Westminster have no clue about the concept of friendship

Loneliness permeates the corridors of power, but new MPs are changing the tone.

By Ben Sellers

For months, I’ve been scratching my head over last summer’s outrage at the idea a Labour MP would refuse to befriend their Tory colleagues. I was genuinely shocked by the volcanic reaction to that simple concept: that you’d be expected to sup with the people who are actively hurting your community, your friends, your family.

It seemed pure common sense, so at first I thought it was faux outrage. Now I realise that it is part of a deep dysfunction. Since working in Westminster (for Laura Pidcock, the MP who initiated this debate) and viewing it from an anthropological perspective, I’ve realised it is a case of two distinct, common senses colliding, and it needs unpicking.

It’s not Laura’s remarks they don’t understand, but the entire meaning of friendship.

So, let’s start from the beginning. We know that, until recently, the route into politics, on both sides, was fairly standard, a well-trodden path: a disproportionate number of MPs came from public schools, or elite universities, especially Oxbridge. Not all, of course – there were other routes, (eg. through trade unions or as “self-made” business people).

But certainly among those who “made it” to higher office, there was a very specific culture. Anyone who has spent any time with those who have been incubated in those “elite” schools and universities know that alongside a very prominent sense of entitlement, there is also a culture of competition, a slightly dysfunctional concept of friendship, and a deep sense of loneliness.

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Parliament, in many senses, is a mirror of that bizarre culture, with all those facets of competition, unstable alliances, and loneliness. Spend a week in Parliament and you will feel the alienation – it’s tangible.

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Imagine then, that you’re a young, northern, working-class woman, who went to a comp and Manchester Metropolitan Uni, with very different values. To anyone from the culture and history that most of us inhabit, the atmosphere of Parliament – not just the tradition, rules or the building, but the transient human relationships, the proximity of gossiping journalists in almost all parts of Westminster and the enclosed, privileged spaces – is absolutely alienating, if not hostile.

As Laura said, it’s the strangest workplace anyone of us has ever inhabited. To find it normal in any sense, you must have emerged from a very different reality. That different reality is the privileged bubble of the elite, as educated inside the cloisters of Oxbridge colleges and comfortingly expensive private schools.

Of course, people say: “But Tony Benn was great friends with Enoch Powell.” And it’s true that he did spend time in the House with the old racist, as he did with Ian Paisley.

Reading the diaries, there is no evidence that their friendship extended much beyond Westminster. I doubt Caroline would have allowed it. Benn did, however, attend Powell’s funeral and allegedly told worried New Labour spin doctors that he would be going because Powell was “his friend”.

I didn’t know him well enough to quiz him on that concept of friendship and what it meant to him, but I do remember him talking about Powell in similar terms to Thatcher: that he hated his ideology, but respected the fact that he was, in his terms, a signpost rather than a weathervane and he admired that.

Is that friendship? Is that as deep as the friendship he had with Dennis Skinner, Joan Maynard or Eric Heffer? I suppose we can only guess, but my own view is that, because he was from a privileged and politically pluralist background, Benn had learned the parliamentary game. That doesn’t mean that he and Powell were the greatest of friends, only that in the lonely rooms of the Palace of Westminster, they shared some common personal ground, just as Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill did.

In among the feather-spitting, one small sentence of Laura Pidcock’s has been completely missed, but it offers a clue to the real issue here. She said: “I have friends I choose to spend time with.”

That isn’t a deliberate, provocative dismissal of the people she is now surrounded by in Parliament, but a genuine sentiment, and those of us who aren’t career politicians will recognise it as such.

Friends aren’t people who we share chit-chat with on the Terrace or in the Strangers’ Bar. They aren’t a journalist who we “hit it off” with over a coffee in Portcullis House, someone we exchange jokes with about how bad Arsenal were at the weekend – and definitely not someone we say “hi” to as we pass them in the corridor between votes.

It isn’t even someone we find common cause with, or chat over an issue with (whatever party). None of that is friendship, at least not the way we conceive it.

Close friends are people who you share your home with, your darkest secrets and most fanciful ideas. They are people who’ve seen you through weddings, break-ups, who’ve seen you be sick, who’ve laughed at your disasters and frailties. People you’ve cried with, who understand your very soul, despite the jokes that might permeate that bond.

To many of us, friendships are permanent, binding contracts. If we want to talk about unconditional friendships, that’s where politics don’t matter. Values do, but not formal politics.

I have friends who don’t share my politics, but I love them dearly. For people to confuse that and the kind of relationships we are offered in Parliament is absolutely bizarre. They aren’t the same thing.

New Labour MPs, whether new or not, whether young or old, would slot into the expected culture a lot easier than those who come from the outside in, as it were. If the 2015 Labour intake included many people from outside the political bubble, then the 2017 intake took it one stage further. One of the most incredible consequences of the unexpectedly good result in June 2017 was the entry of a new generation of MPs, which almost accidently ended up being exactly what the Labour Party needed: MPs like Marsha de Cordova, Laura Smith and Ruth George, who are a huge breath of fresh air.

Obviously, we should all expect political capital to be made out of any sense that the mould is being broken. There are many people in that place with a real interest in preserving the status quo. So the zealous right-wing press, licking its lips, helped by a strengthened hard right on the Tory benches, has attempted to portray this quiet revolution, this slow gathering of MPs who are truly representative of the population at large rather than a political establishment, as something sinister.

Irony died when the Express bemoaned the “politics of hate” seeping into Westminster. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else. The purveyors of hate almost betraying their fear in the process. The media is central to this, because it’s as much a part of this dysfunctional culture as the politicians themselves. Journalists hang around the cafés and bars like charming, ingratiating hyenas. And they have a deep interest in perpetuating these paper-thin, fake friendships of convenience.

So, in some ways, this has been nothing more than a terrible miscommunication. What they are really asking working-class MPs elected over the last three years isn’t: “Are you going to be friends with Tories?” Literally, who cares about that? No, the real question behind it is: “Are you going to conform?”. “Are you going to bow down to the status quo? To the power of the media and the mush of centrism?”

And the answer to that, I’m pleased to say, is a firm “No”.

Ben Sellers works for Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for North West Durham and shadow labour minister. This was written in a personal capacity, and is an edited version of the piece originally published here.