Forget May and Corbyn, the Hope for Politics Lies on the Backbenches
“'If there is hope,' wrote Winston, 'it lies in the proles.'”
It is rare to read in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four hope. Indeed, some have found parallels with his Ministry of Truth and our era of fake news and disinformation. In reality, we are a world away from Orwell’s dystopia. Ok. Half a world.
Our politics is not functioning though. Theresa May’s government is weak and rudderless. Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition is divided and incompetent.
The Tories are living in Brexit La-La Land; Corbyn’s crew expects that nationalising Southeastern rail services will bring Utopia a few steps closer.
In many US States, death row criminals face a choice of execution from lethal injection to hanging. In Britain, we have two: Labour or Conservative. The journey is different, the result the same.
The two media stars, from either side of politics, of the 2017 intake are Kemi Badenoch and Laura Pidcock. Both have already been promoted. In that lies their downfall. Who now remembers Chloe Smith, except for a terrible interview on Newsnight that destroyed her reputation; Rebecca Long-Bailey, once seen as a rising star, has become a faded figure due to too many car-crash interviews a more experienced operator could dealt with better.
Moreover, when have either said anything that was not standard issue for their respective parties. Their backstories might gain our attention, but their thinking is firmly in their partisan boxes.
So forget the hype, the hope lies on the backbenches.
It is about elected representatives putting their heads above the parapet. That deserves respect
On Europe (reminder: the most important issue we face) our frontbenches continue to doublespeak. If you want an analysis that is not about having your cake and eating it, look to Anna Soubry, look to Dominic Grieve, look to Chukka Umunna.
It may be unfair but May poleaxed Corbyn during PMQs when she stated the decision to destroy Windrush landing cards had been taken under Labour.
But compare Corbyn’s failure to the passion and grit shown by Labour MP David Lammy. On local policing, on Grenfell and on housing generally, Lammy has stuck it to the government better than any shadow minister.
Meanwhile, Rachel Reeves - exiled by Corbyn - has worked with the New Economics Foundation to critique the globalised economy with the kind of intelligence that is missing from either main party’s leaderships. She’s suggested solutions too.
Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy has campaigned against North Ireland abortion laws, tax havens and - more recently - the gender pay gap. She has won battles. She has lost battles. She has shown independence and an ability to build alliances across the house.
From the backbenches she has campaigned as the late Robin Cook used to campaign from the frontbench.
On the Tory side, Tom Tugendhat added pressure to the government on Windrush. Johnny Mercer has highlighted issues of mental health among war veterans. Where there has been a vacuum in policy from the government on health and social care policy, Sarah Wollaston led a cross-party call to address the NHS funding crisis with a Parliamentary Commission.
That Wollaston and Tugendhat are elected committee chairs adds to their authority and defies the notion that MPs just want to climb the ministerial greasy pole.
Of course, they don’t always get it right. Jess Philips was criticised for appearing to suggest that mass sexual assault in Cologne was the same as that faced by women every week in Birmingham. Yet, as much as Parliaments needs its Dominic Grieves who can lawerly deconstruct a government bill, they also need outspoken MPs such as Philips who are driven by issues not tribal loyalty. One from many, as the poet said.
This is not about party or agreeing with them on every matter. If we only see politics through our own perspective, we are doomed to agitate fruitlessly from the sidelines. It is about elected representatives putting their heads above the parapet. That deserves respect.
Twitter users should reflect that there is more to an MP than his or her voting record. Politics is not black and white
Yet it is strange to praise these MPs when outsiders have captured both main parties.
Corbyn’s obsessive rebellion achieved nothing, except his own eventual elevation to the purple. He was expected to rebel so few listened to him - even on the occasions when he was right.
May is captive of her Hard Brexiters who could dispose of her at any time. The Tory party in government finds its ideological founding fathers in Bill Cash and John Redwood.
Their similarities is that both put facts second to ideology. Corbyn has indulged the falsehood that tuition fees put off working-class students. He has dabbled in conspiracy theories and evasion to justify his positions on the Salisbury attack and his opposition to Syrian air strikes. Brexit dishonesty is a book in itself. They are fundamentalists.
Maybe Twitter users should reflect that there is more to an MP than his or her voting record. Politics is not black and white. Silly memes rarely produce a full picture and exist to make you feel good about yourself.
The expenses scandal led to a dangerous cynicism about MPs. Voters (few of whom are angels) got on their high horses. Yet there followed a new generation of MPs who looked with greater caution to their constituencies. The 2010-2015 was the most rebellious parliament in post-war history - not just because of the compromises of coalition.
This parliament might be less rebellious. Every MP matters in a tight House of Commons. But a weak government puts parliament centre stage. There lies the opportunity for the Wollastons and Creasys to prod government.
So when all seems lost, remember what Winston Smith never thought: if there is hope, it lies on the backbenches.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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