Our representatives aren’t the cold-blooded reptiles that some like to imagine
British politics has been somewhat of a rollercoaster since the EU referendum. Article 50 is set to be triggered this month. Internal disputes within the Labour Party are ongoing. To the disgust of many, George Osborne was recently unveiled as the new Editor of the London Evening Standard. Nicola Sturgeon is pushing for a second EU referendum, though Theresa May says “now is not the time”. Just keeping up with day to day news is becoming exhausting.
With all this mess, we have moved on from one particular event all too quickly. On the 16th of June 2016, the hugely respected MP for Batley and Spen Valley, Jo Cox, was murdered in her constituency. Police investigations revealed that the murderer, Thomas Mair, was a far-right extremist and that Jo Cox was his target for attack.
Indicative of the character she was, Jo had used her maiden in the House of Commons speech to celebrate the role multiculturalism had played in shaping her constituency: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” How could someone with so much love, warmth, and compassion have fallen victim to an attack full of such evil, anger and hatred?
Unfortunately, though the country mourned and paid their respects following Jo’s death, British politics is as polarised and toxic as ever before. Sky News reported this week that a specialist police unit has been set up to investigate other security threats posed to MPs.
Since Jo’s death, there have been “33 reports of malicious communications, 13 reports of theft, three reports of harassment and four allegations of criminal damage.” Furthermore, female MPs (already underrepresented in the House of Commons) are reportedly disproportionately victims of online abuse.
This issue goes beyond party politics. It’s not about left or right; liberalism or conservativism. It’s about decency, standing up for democracy, and fighting to protect the civil liberties we all hold dear. We must stand up and defend our politicians. Further, we must work to challenge perceptions and bring them closer to the public.
Too many people currently feel ‘left behind’ by an uneven global economy. This notion was often channelled in Brexit debates. However, it is systems that are at fault — not individuals. Politicians do have some agency to change economy, but that agency is rather limited. Inequalities and injustices do not justify making huge, dehumanising generalisations about politicians.
However, there are many MPs who help to degenerate the image of Parliament. The crisis of confidence in politicians is still ringing on from the expenses scandal. And, rightly, people are angry that Mr. Osborne will have editorial duties four days a week, alongside his MP duties (whilst also reportedly pocketing over £600,000 a year through a financial advisory role). Though, it is worth emphasising that not all MPs are like Mr Osborne.
Amidst the drama of the expenses revelations there lies a temptation to generalise the whole of Westminster as corrupted. But expenses are incredibly important, and they link directly to the pressures and strains of the job.
MPs have to spend time in both Westminster and their constituency, as well as frequently attending events up and down the country (especially if they are members of Select Committees, for example). It is right that taxpayers’ money is used to subsidise travel costs; if it wasn’t, only the wealthiest of individuals could afford to be MPs. By all means let’s scrutinise expenses, but let us not forget their purpose.
In this spirit, Talk Politics are currently running a “People Behind The Policy” interview project, which seeks challenge negative perceptions of politicians by getting to know more about their background, interests, and general life as an MP.
Hilary Benn MP also recently pointed out that, “it’s not easy for families because as a Member of Parliament you have to live and work in two places and that’s quite unusual”. As fathers, mothers, husbands and wives, it can be incredibly difficult for MPs to juggle politics with family life, and they deserve a huge amount of respect in that sense.
In addition, nothing is private in politics. Investigative journalists like Guido Fawkes will bend over backwards to find stories on MPs and their families to try undermine people’s faith in politicians. Standing for Parliament takes a huge amount of courage, and the idea that MPs have an easy life is ridiculous.
So when you next hear someone make a snide remark about politicians, be the change you wish to see in the world: call them out. No, they aren’t all the same. No, they aren’t all out for themselves. No, they don’t all milk the expenses system.
Nicky Morgan put it perfectly: “It’s important that people do realise that MPs do a crazy, extraordinary, uplifting job, but we are normal people”.
It’s time we all stood up and defended our hard-working politicians.