Like a spaceship that’s run out of fuel and escaped the pull of earthly gravity, British politics continues its wild, dangerous and unpredictable journey through the great beyond. No one knows where it will land but yesterday it landed soundly on planet patriarchy, captained on this occasion by the MPs Mark Field, Bob Stewart, and Sir Peter Bottomley.
For those fortunate enough to miss these collectively appalling examples of human behaviour, here is a quick recap. It all started with Stewart. With the final round of elections to choose the new Conservative leader looming, he told the Victoria Derbyshire Show of his own unique criteria that has helped him decide who to vote for. He says that he tries to imagine which of the politicians on the ballot would be best placed to lead a 36-person platoon into battle. Bafflingly, he has concluded that Boris Johnson is that person. Asked about Johnson’s past mistakes, Stewart was unequivocal: yes the former Foreign Secretary had “philandered” with “women” but that did not make him unfit to lead, rather it simply shows his human side. It appears that a causative relationship between misogyny and power is in vogue both here and in the US.
As if that wasn’t enough for one day, MP Mark Field grabbed a female climate protester by the throat at a Mansion House dinner, and marched her out of the venue. If you have seen the video I am sure you will have been as shocked as I was by the aggression Field showed and the red, blood-strained complexion on his face as he pushed the woman out of the room. Though perhaps not as shocked as I was later on to hear Tory MPs like Peter Bottomley going on TV to not only defend Field but congratulate him on his “sensible” actions. Looks like we may have found ourselves a new private ready to rise the ranks of Stewart’s barmy army.
It sounds prosaic but of course all of these events are linked. A political system that is still overwhelmingly white and male, which frequently uses military metaphors and, in this example, seeks out military-ready leaders, and that creates and encourages division between parties and between politicians and protesters is one where acts of aggression and hyper-masculinity will be encouraged, promoted, and defended. And where the patriarchy’s mask will drop to reveal unreconstructed misogyny amongst those who lead.
And in this it is yet another example of just how out of step some MPs are with the voting public. Compassion in Politics asked the polling company Opinium to find out what values the public would like to see represented by the new Conservative leader. Rest assured, they are not those of Stewart. Two in three – including 60% of Conservative voters – want the next leader to show them far greater compassion than their predecessors. Over two-thirds think society should be judged by the way it treats the least well-off and 86% agree there should be a safety net for those who fall on hard-times. Three in four believe politicians are too focused on the short-term at the expense of future generations and four in five perceive politicians as being more concerned with insulting one-another than fixing the problems of the country.
It is not the public that have abandoned the values which underpin the welfare state. It is politicians who are increasingly out of step with what the public really wants and values. It is up to us to demand our politicians return from whatever planet they’ve been on and tether themselves instead to the country we all share and to the real purpose of politics – to ameliorate suffering and make the world a safer, fairer place for us all.
If there is a phoenix to be pulled from the ashes of Brexit then it will come from the politicians who have crossed party lines to find common ground. From the MPs who’ve had the courage to risk losing their party whip or who have left their party altogether. From the politicians who have raised their heads above the two-party crossfire of first-past-the-post politics to say they will no longer stay silent when truth demands that they speak. Just as every day brings fresh evidence of the misogyny and sexism that the politics of hate have unmuzzled, so each day brings examples of politicians who are prepared to stand up and be counted.
Forty politicians have already signed up to Compassion in Politics’ pledge to put compassion first. More are joining with each week that goes by. Together we are trying to create a new type of politics. One where MPs from all parties vote across party lines to support measures which promote compassion. We’re campaigning for Britain to become the first country to pass a Compassion Act to ensure no future legislation can leave those in the most vulnerable circumstances worse off or benefit current generations at the expense of future ones. It would be a groundbreaking statement, reorienting British politics and society towards a more compassionate agenda and showing what it is about our nation and it’s people that we value most.
And we need it, desperately. Compassion can be the gravitational pull that draws the public and politicians back into alignment. That reminds us all of a Britishness that isn’t based on chauvinism, jingoism and whiteness but on a belief that we are all of equal worth and dignity. While Farage and the MPs who this week entered the pantomime spotlight seek to head us on to the rocks of hate and chauvinism and contempt, there are others shining a light towards a better future and a new direction.