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A sprinkling of decency over politics

The Independent, October 18th 2010

Douglas Alexander has been telling friends recently how wonderful it was to be working for someone who simply wouldn’t allow negative briefing

One of the reasons why I was relieved to stop writing about politics in June 2007 was that I could see a Government coming that would be nasty and brutish. (Luckily it was also quite short.) Gordon Brown was a bully and a thug, and some of the people around him were even worse. One of the reasons why I am enjoying writing about politics again is that Brown has gone and the Coalition has brought a return to civilised ways of doing politics. And now, with the election of a Miliband as Labour leader – either brother would have done for this purpose – we are in the delightful position of having each of the three main parties run by men who are, at heart, really rather nice.

Take Ed Miliband’s first Prime Minister’s Questions last week. To start with, he seemed almost too slow and gentle. But, by the end of his six questions, he had managed to get the better of David Cameron through calm, reasonable persistence. He made a couple of jokes at the Tory leader’s expense, but they were funny rather than cruel: even Cameron laughed. It was proof that in adversarial political combat it is possible to take the poison out of the barb without lessening its sting.

Both Miliband brothers are fundamentally decent, and for that we should be grateful to Ralph and Marion, who clearly brought them up well. Douglas Alexander, who spent many years in the Brown camp before ending up as David’s campaign manager, has been telling friends recently how wonderful it was to be working for someone who simply wouldn’t allow negative briefing.

At Ed’s first meeting of the new Shadow Cabinet last week, he said: “I won’t be briefing against colleagues and I don’t expect colleagues to be briefing against others or myself … We will have no return to the factionalism of the past.” Well, let’s see. (Were you listening at the back, Mr Balls?) But it’s certainly an improvement on a regime in which, from the top down, bitching about colleagues was the norm.

We could all see what was wrong with the Brown administration. But the backbiting disfigured the Blair regime too. The Prime Minister wasn’t strong enough to rein in a Chancellor who thought his enemies were next door in No 10 rather than across the Commons floor on the Tory benches. I saw the venom come out of Balls’s mouth when he sneered at Blairites, and now we hear from Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, that Brown refused to address a word to him in the 13 years he did the job. How childish and petulant is that?

What a change we have now under the Miliband regime. Balls, who failed to win the leadership precisely because of his thuggish reputation, hasn’t been given the job he wanted. Instead we have as Shadow Chancellor the thoroughly likeable Alan Johnson: the only person he’s been heard to do down is himself. Nick Brown, Gordon’s plotter-in-chief, was told by Miliband not to stand for election as chief whip. Meanwhile, even Tom Watson, a big Brown supporter who engineered the 2006 coup against Blair, wrote last week: “We’ve been on a long march through an arid desert of cynicism in recent years. So, Ed: thank you for giving me my dignity back by treating me like an adult. In return, I promise to stop behaving like a child.” Well, peal the bells for the sinner that repenteth.

On the other side of the House, the constraints of coalition have also helped to civilise politics. It is much harder to plot and scheme when everything has to be argued out with members of a different party and held up against a written Coalition agreement. Cameron and Clegg genuinely trust each other. Ministers have been surprised to find disagreements don’t tend to run along party lines; they more often pit, say, Chris Huhne, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve against Liam Fox, Owen Paterson and Danny Alexander. So there is no room for the traditional party rivalry. And, for the moment at least, there isn’t much factionalism inside the Conservative Party either, except for the occasional – and predictable – David Davis eruption.

The Coalition is going to have to do horrible things, not least this week. But there’s still a sense among voters that the style in which it’s doing them is a refreshing break from the past. In the outside world, we are all used to having to compromise with other people at work, to create a consensus from many viewpoints, and it has always seemed absurd that politicians were instead obsessed with magnifying differences between each other. Now, at last, they are working together.

But if government and party leadership are much improved, the most glaring anachronism is now the Commons chamber. Ed Miliband may be trying a kinder, gentler approach, but backbenchers aren’t. And many of the new intake of MPs are horrified. “The older MPs are staggeringly partisan and staggeringly narrow-minded,” says one new (male) Tory MP. “The chamber is incredibly male and therefore rather inept and foolish.”

A new female Labour MP told me: “I’m still surprised by how mad seemingly normal colleagues are when they enter that chamber. All those weird noises and grunts and ‘Aaahs’! I can’t make those noises. I don’t want to make those noises!”

The last time there was a great influx of new MPs – in 1997 – they managed to reform the hours that the House worked and change Labour policy to make it friendlier to women and families. But many of the new MPs found they had to go native – to start behaving like the old ones – before anyone would listen to them.

This time is a little different. There are 232 new bugs – more than a third of the House. They are not as easily intimidated as their predecessors, partly because the old guard have been discredited by the expenses scandal. The old guard, in turn, are feeling a little too bruised and uncertain to pull rank. Many of the new intake have already found themselves either elected onto select committees or in shadow posts in Ed Miliband’s new regime.

Some are confident enough to disagree with the party line. In an adjournment debate on people trafficking last week, for instance, there were new Tory backbenchers asking their own Government why it hadn’t signed up to the EU directive. Others rebelled over the Bill on EU funding. They want to see Parliament assert itself against the executive and look better to the public.

The Speaker, John Bercow, understands how unattractive the chamber looks. He often says so during PMQs, when he tries to get the barracking to stop. But many older MPs feel disdain for the Speaker and take little notice of his pleas. What they really need is a telling-off from their own leaders. If Cameron, Clegg and Miliband were to order their own MPs to stop behaving like playground bullies, they might get somewhere.

There’s a prize out there to be won. Politicians want to be thought better of. They don’t enjoy the contempt with which they are treated. More particularly, though, the female vote is very uncertain at the moment. Miliband has his eye on it – his defence of child benefit was specifically aimed at aggrieved mothers.

Women, on the whole, hate thuggery more than men. They tend to prefer good-natured agreement to poisonous dispute. If the manner in which politics is conducted is becoming more civilised, then female voters are likely to reward the politicians who made it so. Cuts are always going to feel brutal, but there’s no need for the politics around them to be brutal too.

2 Responses to “A sprinkling of decency over politics”

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