Oh look, Russell Brand doesn’t want to stand for Parliament even though he moans about it! You can watch the clip of the man who was introduced as a ‘comedian and campaigner’ on Question Time last night saying he would ‘be scared I’d become one of them’ here.
Now, it’s easy to mock this ‘comedian and campaigner’ for not following through with his ‘campaigning’ and doing something about the issues he cares so deeply about by going into politics, or at least bothering to understand it (he also moaned about pictures of poor attendances in Parliament when MPs are talking about issues that people care about and high attendances when talking about their pay. On which note, here’s something that might interest you, Russell). Certainly it suggests a lack of faith in his own strength of character. But at the risk of spending rather too much time defending annoying blokes with beards, I do think Brand has a point here.
When MPs enter Parliament these days, they face a choice. Either ‘become one of them’ so you can climb the greasy pole and get a ministerial job, or become a rebel, a backbench maverick, an MP in a party of one. If you do want to become a minister, you must audition for the job by being incredibly loyal to the point of nausea: asking the sycophantic questions in the Chamber that the whips ask you to, not rebelling even on issues that you care about, and pushing the needs of your constituents below those of your career.
Here’s an example of that last unedifying bit of behaviour. I know a backbencher who found his name on the list for Prime Minister’s Questions. He was pleased as there was a serious issue in his constituency that he really needed to raise with the Prime Minister. But then the party whips got in touch with a planted question that they wanted him to ask instead. Forget the serious constituency issue, they said. We’re lining you up for a government job in the next few weeks and if you don’t ask our loyal question about how great David Cameron is, you won’t get the job. He ignored them, and asked his own question. And sure enough, a ministerial colleague spotted his name disappear from the list of MPs due for a promotion. But that happens all the time, even though asking about the constituency matter was arguably the sort of thing this MP was elected to do, not brownnose the Prime Minister with a question that would be forgotten as soon as it was asked.
Other MPs are threatened with sackings or the naughty step for attending special interest groups or penning articles that their party leadership has deemed in some way threatening to their own narrative, even if those activities are simply the MP saying what they think rather than criticising their own party.
And confidentiality means nothing if exposing someone will shut them up. There remains some bad feeling in the Labour party that Ian Austin and Simon Danczuk were named as the ‘plotters’ against Ed Miliband after they held confidential discussions with Dave Watts, the chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Backbench Labour MPs suspect that Watts passed their worries on to the whips, who are then suspected of releasing the names to the media. This has left those who want to express concerns in private feeling as though they have nowhere to turn.
Party loyalty is important for political leaderships and governments because it makes it easy for them to get legislation or new policies in place without a fuss. But if it means MPs are staying silent on issues they care about or failing to scrutinise legislation or the executive effectively for fear of being labelled an unemployable rebel, then loyalty isn’t a good thing for voters.
The thoughtful Labour MP Alison McGovern spent the summer in the pub talking to voters who aren’t engaged in politics and was struck by how many of them asked whether MPs have to hold back from saying what they think. Loyalty is not something voters like, even if whips do.
Loyalty isn’t a good thing for people considering politics, either. Why would many people want to go into politics to change things only to find they can’t even say things or vote as they think right without being labelled an outcast? If you are ambitious and have done well in your pre-Parliamentary career, then you will naturally want to progress into government or a role where you have influence over party policy. But to do so, you must become an unquestioning robot.
Earlier this year I was approached by a political party who asked if I might want to stand for Parliament. After I’d finished spluttering and laughing in a rather ungraceful fashion, I explained that even though I’d be great for their gender balance, they wouldn’t want me: I’d be far too rebellious, insufficiently tribal and probably horribly bad at many aspects of the job. I also suspect I’d find it miserable going from being a journalist who writes about the problems with this that and the other to being an MP who would troop through the lobbies supporting things I either didn’t know the detail of or definitely disagreed with. I am no loss to Parliament, but there are others who will feel the same way about loyalty who would be.
Things are changing, though. Clever MPs know that loyalty and a junior government job aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Last month’s Spectator Parliamentarian Awards saw Sarah Wollaston winning the Backbencher of the Year because of the way she has carved out a career as an outspoken MP popular with her constituents but no chance of a government job. Fraser said:
‘She plotted a career way that redefines what it means to be an MP. She had never attended a political meeting before being selected for her party, in an open primary where any constituent could vote. Her election to the chair of the Health Select Committee this year underlines her status as an MP who is respected by her peers as much as she is cursed by whips and spin doctors.’
MPs are now looking to the Wollaston model and realising that they needn’t enter a government department in order to enjoy a great deal of influence. Many of them turn down PPS and whips jobs because they think they’ll bring more grief than good.
I suspect Brand was talking as much about MPs looking to their own self-interest above the needs of others (which brings us back to this). And there is a chance that he too would make a poor MP given what our elected representatives really spend their time doing, which is hard, unglamorous public service. But if he meant he didn’t want to become a blindly tribally loyal robot, then he has a pretty good point, however unintentional.