Mellor, Mitchell, Mordaunt and Thornberry: we can be better than this

By Jill Segger
December 1, 2014

Following an appearance at the Edinburgh Festival this year, Jeremy Paxman remarked that it was “almost impossible to exaggerate the public’s contempt for politicians.” This is probably true and much of that scorn is of politicians' own making.

From the expenses scandal of 2009 to the present policies of exclusion and division, via the ludicrous failures of politicians of all parties to admit they could ever be in error or that their opponents might have a point, voters struggling with austerity who know that reality is full of compromise and accommodation, have little patience left for the well-remunerated inhabitants of the 'Westminster Bubble'.

That this is bad for our democratic health hardly needs to be said. And recent occasions of politicians, past and present, showing an ugly lack of respect for the electorate which goes beyond the habitual cynicism of vote-garnering PR, shows that contempt breeds contempt.

The foul mouthed and childishly petulant outbursts of David Mellor and Andrew Mitchell reveal two conceited and insecure men whose sense of entitlement blinded them to proportion and courtesy. Apparently, taxi drivers and police officers – voters whose jobs are those of service and which enable many of the facilities taken for granted by people with less gruelling daily responsibilities – are fair game for insult and grandstanding because they are of a lower social standing or have not had a privileged education.

Then there was Emily Thornberry's ill-considered decision to tweet a photograph of a house with a white van parked outside and England flags hanging from the windows during the Rochester by-election. No amount of pointing out her own council-house origins or interviews with her builder brother could divert attention from the fact that the woman who aspires to be Attorney-General displayed an astounding lack of discernment which appears to have its roots in thinking that the houses of working class people can be used in this manner without either comment or criticism. There are worse failures than Twitter naivety, but this demonstration of insensitivity played perfectly to Ukip's agenda of portraying the 'Westminster elite' as their own raison d'être.

The latest piece of self-regarding unpleasantness comes from Penny Mordaunt. The MP for Portsmouth North and a Naval reservist, admitted to delivering a speech in the Commons which was the result of a 'dare' issued to her in the Officers' Mess. This consisted of requiring the MP to utter the work 'cock' on the floor of the Commons and to insert into her speech the names of all the officers instrumental in putting her up to this puerile act.

Leaving aside the fact that very few people over the age of 12 are likely to think this amusing, the contempt shown to the chamber of our legislature, to the integrity of public service and to the people of her constituency is breathtaking. This cannot be credibly dismissed, as some have attempted to do, as an MP 'not taking herself too seriously'. That approach illuminates so much that is wrong with the current political culture. This is not about Ms Mordaunt's image of herself, it is about taking seriously the people she represents in a democratic assembly. Showing yourself to be 'one of the boys' should not be pursued at their financial and democratic expense.

The blame for the sorry state of affairs to which our political culture has descended belongs to both representatives and represented and, as with any stand-off, requires both parties to take a long, honest look at themselves. Voters need to step back from “they're all the same” and “all out for themselves”. There are, beyond doubt, insufficient differences between the main parties. Equally beyond doubt is the self-serving behaviour of many MPs. But it makes sense to encourage and engage with the better amongst them while being clear-sighted in disapprobation and criticism of the selfish, insolent and stupid. Most of us are aware of the weaknesses of human nature and will, if met with honesty, make room for understanding and mutual improvement.

Politicians could and should learn from the unpleasant behaviours of Mellor, Mitchell and Mordaunt and from the lack of forethought displayed by Thornberry. It is unlikely that there can be many among us who have not at some time lost our tempers or manifested insecurity in a manner calculated to boost ourselves at another's expense. Many of us will have done something stupid because of a lack of discernment. Eagerness to be 'in' with the group may well have presented a temptation to forget where responsibility and loyalty should properly lie. If the parliamentary figures concerned could also acknowledge common weakness and express contrition without bluster or attempts at point-scoring, there could be some hope of bridging the gap which has grown so wide and so damaging to our common life.

The general election is less than six months away. We really need to be thinking hard about our values and about what we may realistically expect from our politicians. Descending into mutual outrage and derision or mistaking insult for conviction will not deliver us a more just and humane society. Making possible the acknowledgement of failure and then receiving it with grace might just begin to model a better way forward for us all.

* More on the upcoming General Election from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

Views expressed by individual contributors do not necessarily reflect an official Ekklesia view.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.