Categorized | UK

Dennis Skinner is no model, yet he has a lesson for Labour

Despite their popularity, individualist politicians are not the answer. But they do show that the party must be clear what it stands for
Satoshi Kambayashi illustration for Polly Toynbee piece on Westminster and politicians

‘The humiliating process of begging for votes seems to invite a kicking. Look how soon the disillusion sets in after a revolution.’ Illustration: Satoshi Kambayashi

A Twitter storm of indignation greeted news that Dennis Skinner has been voted off Labour’s national executive committee by his fellow MPs. How could they oust an original, a working-class hero, in a world of bland, robotic politicians? “The Labour party has never been further from its roots”, “Too scared of upsetting wealthy middle England”, they tweeted. Good grief, even Tory culture minister Ed Vaizey tweeted: “It beggars belief that a party would not have a man such as this on their executive”.

The 82-year-old jokester’s shout-outs when Black Rod enters are part of that insane ritual – not exactly Wildean wit, but anything remotely joke-shaped cracks up the Commons. Occasionally he’s deadly: “Tell her to pay her taxes!” to the Queen, and “It tolls for thee, Maggie!”, which it did. David Cameron doesn’t like it up him when Skinner blasts him with both working-class barrels, as at PMQs this week: “As a member of the Bullingdon Club, is he proud to be surrounded by this [NHS] wreckage?”

Age bestows benevolence, but some with 1980s memories don’t forgive him, Tony Benn and others for rendering Labour unelectable in the “no enemies on the left” days, blocking attempts to stop Militant’s invasion. Roy Hattersley calls him “an entirely destructive force”. But others say a mellowed Skinner often helped Blair and Brown out of difficulties. That is ancient history. Now, for those without rancorous memories, the man is a totem remnant of imaginary days when politics were better, MPs more authentic. Was there a plot to oust him? It’s hotly denied, but it looks to the world like yet another case of Westminster not getting it.

People like MPs who look and sound more like the population and who speak their mind, detesting whips and party obedience. Online comments and radio phone-ins call for referendums on everything, for independent MPs and for colourful characters like, say, Nigel Farage. But they never say how democracy is served by electing individuals without party to define what they stand for.

Our ICM poll shows 56% of people angry at broken promises, but at least a manifesto shapes the parameters of a party’s intent. A bunch of random individuals would mean less not more democracy. This spirit of individualism makes democracy impossible when every voter, with no party allegiance, expects to get exactly what they want, as if they were shopping.

With fewer than 1% belonging to a party, understanding why we need them is fading, as ICM found 44% complaining that MPs all “look and sound the same”. The Guardian revealed that half of Labour’s candidates in winnable seats arrived via Westminster jobs as special advisers or researchers. Labour is warned not to repeat 2010’s disgraceful parachuting of favourite sons and daughters just before the election.

But the great majority of selections are done by the local party – one member, one vote – often selecting someone with Westminster experience. Liverpool MP Andy Burnham says most MPs should come from the area they represent, as he does. The implication of all this is that southern carpetbaggers never look right in northern seats. But old hands remember the bad old days when unions and the local General Management Committee fixed it, often for dead-wood favourites.

Standing as a candidate needs to be made easier. They have to spend six weeks learning the patch, buttering up Labour members, sending out leaflets, every penny paid from their own purse. Anyone with no backer can only stand in a local seat, when paying fares and hotel bills is prohibitive. It may take three or four shots for even a very good candidate to get selected – and then they have to juggle day jobs with campaigning. Politics is not life on easy street. Before, Barbara Castle visited Blackburn once a month; Hugh Dalton went to his seat every six months. Now, MPs work in their constituencies every weekend, family life a struggle.

Social progress has changed the nature of MPs – now half the population goes to university. Skinner, John Prescott and Alan Johnson – workers who came up through the unions, all clever men – would certainly go to university these days. They would have joined the Labour club and sought work campaigning for Labour afterwards, just as full of conviction. To be a (low-paid) spad or researcher is not a dishonourable sign of cynical careerism. Maybe they should work elsewhere first, but all those barristers and financiers on the Tory side are no nearer the “real world”.

Politics was always a profession. Most MPs I meet, even those I disagree with profoundly, came into the Commons intending to make the country a better place, in the face of public contempt. But praising the practice of politics incites abuse for belonging to the same “Westminster elite”. It’s a curious near-universal phenomenon that democracy is worshipped but its practitioners reviled. The humiliating process of begging for votes seems to invite a kicking. Look how soon the disillusion sets in after a revolution.

Labour agonises about ways to reconnect, selecting more women, ethnic minorities and locals – all essential. But in the end you only connect with voters by planting a flag in the ground that draws people to rally round. Who you are fades beside what you stand for. Identity politics fills the vacuum where ideas, ideals and excitement should be. Labour is going through one of its periodic wobbles, torn between the great, bold ideas wanted by Jon Cruddas and a paralysing caution as they watch good policy turned into Red Ed-scare by the Tory press.

Remember Neil Kinnock’s passionate speeches? He lost. But each week it becomes clearer that relying on voters to loathe the Tories a little more than they are indifferent to Labour is not an option. The photo of Miliband with the Sun was so excruciating because it was craven and phoney – but it was, many say, a spine-stiffening jolt to remind them that without principle there’s no hope. Skinner is no model, but more Labour MPs need to find their own authentic voices.

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