The Blog

The Use and Abuse of Public Disdain

In Michael Cockerell's four-part documentary series Inside the House of Commons, Labour MP Steve Rotheram is filmed on a rooftop in Liverpool flaunting his skills as a former bricklayer. It's not long before Auf Wiedersehen Pet turns slapstick as Rotheram comically struggles to move a chimney, but for a short while we are presented with our perfect parliamentarian. In Westminster his scouse accent sounds totally lost, like the call of a tropical bird thrown off its migratory route into the bushes of a Birmingham car park. He jokes about his aloof colleagues in the commons before heading back to Merseyside to get his hands dirty. He stands out as being diametrically opposed to the three main party leaders. The home country careerism that unfairly defines the trite trident of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband has become fertile ground for political insurgents like Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon, while feeding popular cynics such as Russell Brand.

The decision to allow Cockerell's series unprecedented level of access to the corridors of power was probably part of an ongoing effort to re-humanise Westminster, which has yet to remove the stains left after the 2009 expenses scandal. If so it was quite a good effort, that is at least until it was undermined by a classic sting operation conducted by Channel 4 and the wounded Daily Telegraph. As ever, high level politicians were caught on hidden cameras boasting about what they could do for a fictitious private sector client, the format is as formulaic as a Scooby Doo plot and twice as predictable. Down goes Malcolm Rifkind, down goes Jack Straw, and down goes politics, once again into the gutter.

In response, David Cameron declared that he wanted "people to know in this country our members of parliament are there to serve their interests and their country." He soon received a message from Ed Miliband urging strict restriction on MP's outside earnings. But the Labour leader was swiftly shot down by a Number 10 spokesman arguing that the Prime Minister did not want a House of Commons "full of professional politicians", an opinion that seems rather at odds with Cameron's own linear career path.

According to Cameron "there are people who have small businesses or sit on other businesses and draw on some experiences to bring to the House of Commons." Perhaps this is true, but the image the Prime Minister seeks to evoke is, at least at the most senior levels of Westminster politics, a complete fantasy. Perhaps there is the odd aberration like Rotheram, but those in real positions of power aren't laying bricks or driving white vans during the recess and many are selling themselves on the basis of the influence they won at the ballot box.

By claiming that reform would make the House of Commons even more remote than it already is, Cameron is skillfully hijacking the public's anti-Westminster sentiment to protect the toxic environment that created it.

The tragedy is that this circle of cynicism has become a self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating prophecy. It was exacerbated last week by the Conservative's tactless 'black & white ball' and subsequent allegations that almost every political party in Britain was receiving donations from certifiable tax-dodgers and is reinforced by almost all forms of party political mud-slinging. Much of the public dislike and distrust the politicians due to a suspicion that they are susceptible to bribery, but they dislike them so much that when asked if they would be willing to step in and cover political campaigns with the public purse, they consistently recoiled in horror and opt for the status-quo. So the cycle continues. Another year will inevitably bring another hidden camera and another set of resignations.

The easy thing to do is nothing. The reputation of mainstream politics is a common resource and it is the responsibility of no one person to reverse the ongoing erosion. Anybody can score points at its expense because it's a wonderful scapegoat, but almost everybody suffers as it's chipped away, especially the electorate themselves. To halt the decline requires political action, which would probably be unpopular and become an albatross around the neck of whoever attempts to instigate it. But until that happens, there's nowhere to go but down.