Get used to it
Attempts to insulate MPs from insults are laughable and doomed to failure, argues Paul Demarty
We observe with increasing frustration the latest moral panic concerning the torrent of so-called ‘abuse’ directed at members of parliament.
Theresa May, no doubt feeling the heat out on the dark side of the internet just at the moment, with her cabinet barely restraining itself from open mutiny and the European Union piling on the punishment, has appointed the Committee on Standards in Public Life, led by a certain Lord Paul Bew, to investigate the vitriol faced by our good representatives in today’s hostile climate. We await his findings with very little interest, mainly because he has taken every opportunity to exploit the publicity that has momentarily attached itself to his role by prejudicing his own inquiry - asserting that as a result of ‘abusive’ language democracy is in danger and other such nonsense. Various parliamentarians have made themselves available to grumble about how awful it all is.
His brief in this regard includes making recommendations on whether the law needs to be tightened up - last we checked, threatening people with physical violence was already illegal, but as usual the point of the exercise seems to be to kick British society down the slippery slope. The name of St Jo of Cox is mentioned often, despite the fact that she was murdered by a man who had not only apparently never engaged in online abuse, but had been an admirer of violent neo-fascism longer than the worldwide web has existed. As usual, dead innocents are made the tool of unscrupulous demagogues, regardless of anything so vulgar as the facts.
Such initiatives always founder upon the inconvenient truth that MPs are not very much the flock of blameless lambs they pretend so very hard to be among these periodic fits of crocodile tears. Indeed, no better illustration of all this is available than the history of Paul Bew’s committee itself.
The CSPL was founded by John Major in October 1994, which keen minds will recall as the most acute period of the ‘cash for questions’ scandal, when TheSunday Times and especially The Guardian discovered that numerous Tory MPs were happy to take bribes in return for asking particular questions in parliament - most notoriously from Mohamed al-Fayed, the eccentric owner of Harrods, who dropped most of them in it. When a prime minister is in trouble, and something needs to be done, that something is often the very public setting up of a committee. Thus the CPSL, a quango born to advise the government of the day how to keep public servants - in parliament and in Whitehall and, more recently, even in ‘third sector’ organisations dependent on taxpayers’ money - in good order.
And that’s about it. The exact terms of reference are tweaked every now and again. Since then, we have had the Hindujas and their passports, Tony Blair’s cosiness with Lakshmi Mittal, the MPs’ expenses affair, the phone-hacking business, and lobbying scandals at a rate similar to football World Cups. No amount of ‘advice’ seems enough to defend decency in public life. No amount of committees, either - since CSPL was founded, the advisory committee on business appointments (Acoba) has had its remit extended to cover the jobs taken by ministers after they leave office, ostensibly to seal up the most usual means of post-hoc bribery; and the parliamentary standards and privileges committee, after the disaster of MPs’ expenses, was split into two. Some good it does, as can be seen from the lucrative post-treasury career of George Osborne and the utterly toothless behaviour of the Parliamentary Standards Committee (nicknamed the ‘double standards committee’ by the cruel minded).
Why on earth should the ‘little people’ of the internet find fault with such selfless public servants? We cannot imagine.
Bew, an ex-member of the pro-imperialist Maoist group, the British and Irish Communist Organisation, got his ermine for helping to rig up the dysfunctional Good Friday regime in Northern Ireland, and no doubt feels most at home in a political regime defined likewise by stitch-ups, graft and clientelism. It is no surprise to find him brazenly traducing the purported mission of his quango, which consists among other things in promoting accountability in public offices, by making them even less responsible to their electorate than they currently are.
In the end, we home in on a very telling comment from Bew. “We are in a bad moment and we have to respond to it,” he told Radio 4. “We cannot afford to lose people of quality in our public life and we may be approaching a tipping point.” The assumptions necessary to utter such a banality are exactly the root of the matter, and upon examination are profoundly anti-democratic.
Bew wants to make sure parliament is a ‘safe space’ for “people of quality”. As such, one could hardly disagree - nobody wants people of no quality whatsoever as politicians, and indeed we can’t help but notice that, among those presently working away at their tiny violins, nonentities and blathering idiots are distinctly overrepresented. If people of such ‘quality’ could be run out of Westminster, even by the rough means of online hectoring, it would be no great loss to the cause of human progress.
Yet the point is rather that, by accepting such terms for the selection of our politicians, we also tacitly accept the conception of political life as a profession, and thereby as the preserve of a restricted caste. “We cannot afford to lose people of quality,” says Bew, with the assumption that they might all go on a kind of capital strike, like a petulant crowd of John Galts. Indeed they might, if their mode of existence is as a closed-shop skills monopoly, policing their own boundaries by establishing and enforcing the protocols of initiation for new members. In such a mode of organisation, who determines who is a ‘person of quality’? Why, the pre-existing ‘people of quality’, for who else is properly qualified to judge? (The result of such a marking-your-own-homework set-up is, of course, graft and corruption - hence the laughable performance of Acoba and the double-standards committee.)
So, while the online abuse pseudo-scandal seems to be admirably cross-partisan, with not only Tories complaining, but also a Labour left warhorse like Diane Abbott, what is actually on display is a more profound kind of political solidarity between politicians as a caste. This idea of politics is inimical to democracy, for it carries with it the necessary consequence that meaningful political decision-making on the part of ordinary people is incompatible with good governance. We must pick only between approved members of the caste. When they betray our trust, we must swallow our anger, and accept that it is all for our own good.
Once people at large are thus expropriated of their political power, and they observe the consequences, however, the result is not mute obedience, but rather anger. This feeling may find its outlet in radical or far-right politics; or perhaps merely calcify into atomised cynicism and resentment. Thus we find exactly the three kinds of ‘abuse’ directed at our poor politicians - forcefully expressed political criticism from left and right, and malicious trolling. There are plainly overlaps, particularly between the so-called ‘alt right’ and the trolls for trolling’s sake; but the rhetorical strategy at work in the present moral panic is instead to make a ghastly amalgam of all three, so that legitimate anger at treachery is smeared by association with random drive-by rape threats. Thus it can be made to seem that a malignant ‘other’ - the far left or right - generates the ‘problem’, when it is merely a necessary excrescence of the technocratic vision of politics.
We observe, then, that even the most nihilistic diatribes against MPs are not expressions merely of criminal insanity or evil, but merely the pus on the scab on the infected wound of bourgeois political culture. Paul Bew is thus doomed to failure - no combination of changes to the law will stem the tide.
The remedy is there, but, unfortunately for our cowering MPs, is altogether more drastic. Partly it is a matter of ripping up the existing constitution and bringing something worthy of the name, democracy, to bear on society - an end to monarchy, however ‘constitutional’, and to ‘first past the post’ and its rotten boroughs, to the upper house that seats Paul Bew and fills his wallet; a new dawn of republican democracy, with a proportional, unicameral parliament elected annually (among countless other things).
The advantage of proportional representation in its purest form in this regard is that it hands power to parties to determine their representatives. Yet that power is all too often under-utilised even where it exists, which is the other side of the problem: the lack of a mass party with an engaged membership base prepared to exercise discipline. This is quite as true on the right as the left, but, seeing as the right can govern quite happily as a Bonapartist overlord in relation to its constituents, there is no fatal contradiction. For the left and the workers’ movement, however, things are different: concessions we make to the generation and reproduction of a permanent professional political caste are directly counterposed to our objectives.
We have, in today’s Labour Party, a mass party once again, its ranks replenished with hundreds of thousands of people to the left of its apparat, its MPs and even the leadership who inspired them. But they are not yet sufficiently organised and politically educated to subordinate these other forces to their general will. A Parliamentary Labour Party subject to mandatory reselection and restricted to a worker’s wage, a swift exit for Murdoch’s mercenaries in the compliance unit - all would be real steps towards a world where parliamentary office had honour worth defending.