This MP is a prime example of a minority: Village idiots

I’m not entirely sure what to make of today’s sketch by Quentin Letts, which is centers on the very Mail idea of ‘fairness’:

“The equality maniacs are rampant. If they have their way it will be quotas at every turn, all-ethnic shortlists, ‘equality audits’ in political parties and a limit of four parliamentary terms per MP before enforced retirement kicks in. All to speed up the process of ‘making Parliament more representative’.”

Now, on the one hand, I can totally agree with him that quotas and all-ethnic shortlists are bad things, not least because being discriminatory in the name of equal opportunities  seems perverse. But on the other, is there anyone who’s against Parliament being more representative? Here’s Richard Littlejohn on the subject a year ago:

“Straw’s government introduced one-sided devolution and uses Scottish MPs to force upon the English laws which do not apply to their own constituents. The English have no say in what happens on the Scottish side of the border, yet are expected to pick up the lion’s share of the bill.”

Indeed, don’t we want to make public bodies in general more representative of the people they serve? Here’s Stephen Glover, last month:

“Our publicly-funded broadcaster can’t succeed if it is run by a narrow sect unrelated to the values of the people it is supposed to serve and inspire.”

In Letts’ defence, I haven’t found him speaking out previously in favour of greater representativeness anywhere, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but his is certainly an interesting position to take in a newspaper otherwise so scrupulously defensive of rights of representation. Particularly when discussing a committee which has yet to decide anything yet – the sketch outlined a session of the Speaker’s Conference, not its report. None of the dim future he foresees has yet come to pass. Who knows, on the back of this article he may be invited to outline his objections and alternatives.

At which point he would be stuck. I think the last time I looked at the sketch, I was mildly depressed by its negativity, and it’s got no better:

“When Mr Bercow was discussing bigots he put on an Alf Garnett-style accent. Of course, Mr Bercow himself is a prime example of a minority: Village idiots.”

Which dismisses Bercow’s point (about bigots in the media), but doesn’t engage with it. In a similar fashion, Letts takes snide pot shots at the idea of speeding along representative equity without ever saying why it’s a bad thing or what his alternative is. The people on the Conference are lampooned, but to what effect? If the ideas are so obviously wrong, it should be an easy task for him to knock them down, but instead he targets the village idiot, the “purple-nosed Solomon, that leathery fool Speaker Martin”, the “TUC sister”, the “suave charmer” who runs the organisation that “costs £70million of our money a year”. The only times he put forward an argument is when dealing with side issues like the suggestion that there should be limits on service in Parliament or whether or not Parliament contains gay role models.

Now, there’s a debate to be had in this area, and it’s quite an interesting one: for instance, does a political system based on constituencies need to pay heed to matters of diversity, or do we feel that our unity of locality neutralises our other differences? If we do feel we need a more representative parliament, can we achieve this in a first-past-the-post system where regional minorities are always at an electoral disadvantage? Can we legitimately restrict the franchise in the name of encouraging diversity, be it through quotas or any other method? Is the most we can do mere encouragement to stand for Parliament, or is even this affirmative action demeaning and discriminatory? It’s clear from the quotes he selects and the tone of his piece that Quentin has questions like this to ask, but we don’t get them, only the bashing of people who should be considering such questions. It’s probably more a failing of the sketch as a genre than of this one in particularly, but it feels like aa cop out.

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Exposed: The sinister secrets of Labour’s party list

Were it not for the fact that it’s been a very quiet week, I wouldn’t have bothered with this column by Littlejohn, not least because this blog is in danger of starting to revolve entirely around him. This would be a mistake – his writing is designed to upset people such as myself as much as they are to inspire his disgusted readership – posting on him, up to a point, only gives him attention that his views don’t really merit. Having said that, the opinions of others deserve a fair hearing. So here we go again:

“Back in 1997, Tony Blair claimed that the party was nothing less than the political wing of British people as a whole.”

Which is more or less accurate, but taken out of context. To take a similar example, a part claiming to be ‘the vanguard of the proletariat’ does not claim to be ‘made up of the proletariat’ but ‘vanguard leading the proletariat’. It was a hyperbolic exaggeration even at the time, but Blair’s Labour came a lot closer to having the support of the nation as a whole than anyone had recently.

“But the list of members posted on a website shows it to be a declining rump of lecturers, school teachers, social workers, trade union officials and former councillors.”

Not quite: union officials, lecturers and teachers in particular have left the party in droves, objecting to marshal policies in Iraq (and, before that, in the Balkans), micromanagement in education and PPIs. The rump of the party is what it always was – blue collar workers and those in the public sector. Like nurses, and policemen. Incidentally, what’s wrong with teachers now – how is their support to the detriment of a party?

“Many of them have never had a proper job in their lives and harbour dubious histories, in some cases descending into outright criminality.”

Littlejohn is a professional journalist and broadcaster. History is the past. Having committed a crime does not disbar you from holding political opinions.

“They include a significant number of extremists, including plenty who previously belonged to an assortment of Trotskyite and Communist organisations – facts they have tried to conceal from the public.”

Given the number of ideas that are possible, the probability that the first ones you hold are correct is very, very small. Even smaller if you’re a Trot. The fact that Labour members have moved on (and if you think that they haven’t, you’ve mistread Trotsky) to the point where they don’t really want to be reminded of their student beliefs is actually quite encouraging. We certainly can’t use it as a smear: the fact that someone used to think something but now doesn’t talk about it or act on it is not the same as them still thinking it. By the by, who are these brave socialist extremists? Where is the Revolution?

“Some people may be shocked at the news that one of Labour’s most senior figures had been involved in a massive pensions swindle and is also wanted in connection with the disappearance of billions of pounds’ worth of Britain’s gold bullion and foreign exchange reserves.”

A slight misrepresentation: although you could call Brown’s abolition of dividend tax a  ‘swindle’ because he knowingly relocated £5 billion a year from pensions to the Exchequer¹, it wasn’t actual stealing, merely a decision to tax income that wasn’t previously taxed. It reduced earnings for pensions relative to a future in which the decision hadn’t been made, but that’s not the same as theft. And our bullion and foreign exchange didn’t disappear, they were sold off. Arguably foolish, but not malign. People may be shocked when you put it like that, but that’s because you’ve deliberately misrepresented it.

“Approached by reporters, he refused to answer questions and blamed everything on the Americans.”

Not everything – the comments I’ve come across relate to the sub-prime crisis starting in America, which it did. Again, this may well have been more luck than judgement, but the problems of defaulting mortgages have, so far, been much smaller over here so far. It would also be somewhat unfair to blame Brown entirely for a problem with its roots in policies Labour inherited which encouraged people to own their own home. Property fetishism didn’t start under Labour, however much they failed to restrict it.

“Another leading light is a serial offender who obtained a mortgage by deception, was guilty of an outrageous stamp duty scam and was sacked for selling passports.”

Another misrepresentation: the mortgage provider in question investigated and said “Having completed this review, I am satisfied that the information given to us at the time of the mortgage application was accurate., the resignation related to a potential conflict of interests relating to the source of his second loan². He was also cleared of dodgy dealings relating to passports, having resigned to clear his name.

“He is also suspected of using his previous position at the European Commission to do favours for a businessman who has been linked with the Russian underworld in exchange for lavish hospitality.”

‘Suspected’ is the key word here – as trade commissioner, it was his job to meet foreign metals dealers. The idea that the lavish hospitality on offer that his office provided him with was sufficiently poor that it could be trumped by the mere yacht of a Russian arriviste underestimates the opulence of the EU.

“One of Labour’s most prominent members is a school teacher from Redditch, who has an insatiable appetite for punishment and correction and is known simply by her chat room name: ‘Jackboots Jacqui’.”³

Again with the teachers, it’s mystifying. And is Littlejohn against punishment and correction now? That’s unfair – the death penalty has nothing to do with correction, and the sort of punishment he’s thinking about are fines for failing to obey restrictions on bins and speeding. The S&M jibe doesn’t really cover that – some sort of play on the nanny state would probably have been more apposite – but I suppose it’s his article. Again though, ‘punishment and correction’ is a bit of a misreading of the intention to modify behaviour with stick rather than carrot. It’s not the stick that is the purpose of the exercise, it’s merely the method.

“On the afternoon we contacted her at the address listed, she told our reporter that he had been a very naughty boy, demanded to see his identity card and said everything he did was being recorded on CCTV and may be used against him on YouTube.”

Note, however – when the observation is happening to a private individual at the hands of the press, that’s a fine and glorious thing.

“Another couple, from Yorkshire, collect in the region of £600,000 a year from the British taxpayer. We went to the property they list as their primary residence for expenses purposes, only to be told that they spend most of their time at an address in London, where their children go to school.”

For those that missed it, here is the Parliamentary Standards Committee’s on that particular couple. As previously mentioned, the tax man benefited from Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper’s misjudgement.

“One Labour MP, from Sheffield, threatened to set his dog on journalists attempting to question him about his relationship with a wealthy American magazine publisher and his involvement in fast-tracking a visa for her nanny. He then burst into tears.”

And now we’re getting laughs from a blind man and his guide dog? Although, for once, the point about the minister is correct – Blunkett was criticised by Alan Budd’s report into the nanny’s visa decision, saying “I believe I have been able to establish a chain of events linking Blunkett to the change in the decision on Mrs Casalme’s application.”

“Another veteran Labour member lists his occupation as ‘ship’s steward’, but further inquiries revealed he lives in a turreted, baronial-style mansion with two Jaguars in the drive. How he managed to rise to high office without any apparent intelligence, manners, charm or O-levels, remains a mystery.”

Prescott is an interesting target, as he is actually part of what Richard refers to as ‘the real economy’, and Richard isn’t a fan of intellectuals. The only objection I can see is that he’s a bit nouveau – but aren’t we all? It’s also a fairly weak objection, when set against someone clearly intelligent enough to be repeatedly elected (regardless of O-levels, which don’t measure intelligence but attainment, which is something distinct), and actually quite charismatic if not exactly charming. And can we really claim a man isn’t socialist when the grace and favour house in question is owned by the state?

“The website also records one Anthony Lynton Blair as a member of the party. When challenged about it, at his elegant home in Connaught Square – ‘Chez Negative Equity’ – he laughed at the suggestion.”

He’s lost me – I must have missed that one.

“The leaked details also reveal the staggering fall in membership of the Conservative Party since 2005. The names of everyone considered potentially racist, homophobic, Eurosceptic, doubtful about global warming, or even vaguely Thatcherite, have been crossed out.”

A nice touch this, reminding us that all politicians are dodgy, not just those in power. Although surely making the party less unpleasant to minorities is a good thing?  Eurosceptics still have a place on the Conservative Party website, science supports global warming (presumably making science Tory), and the Tory leader recently said this: “Nearly 20 years after she left office, Margaret’s achievements appear, if possible, even greater than they did at the time.Nearly 20 years after she left office, Margaret’s achievements appear, if possible, even greater than they did at the time.”

“The few remaining members of the party all went to Eton and are alumni of the notorious Bullingdon Club, which specialised in getting horsewhimperingly drunk and smashing up restaurants.

Shortly after the leak became public, all pictures of the Bullingdon Club were bought up by a wealthy benefactor and taken down from the internet to protect their guilty secret.”

And, once more, we’re back to embarrassing student days.

“The website also illustrates the parlous state of the Liberal Democrats. One former leader lists his address as the Last Chance Saloon Bar, Priory Clinic.”

Just to round off, we’re laughing at alcoholism.

Now, I said at the beginning that the ideas of others deserved a fair hearing – if nothing else because otherwise we don’t know that they’re wrong. Sometimes I wonder though. This is nothing more than a collection of smears, half-truths and inaccurate jibes. He’s clearly aware of actual areas of debatable policy – like Jacqui Smith’s sticks or Gordon Brown’s tax adjustments, but rather than engage with them he goes for the easy option of attacking their characters. Badly. Literally the only mud that sticks in the entire thing regards an ex-Minster’s poor judgement as he tried to repair his collapsing love life. As ever, the whole thing is ill-judged and nasty. I just hope I’ll have something more interesting to play with next week.

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¹ Torygraph coverage here, Indie here, Moneyweek here and Auntie Beeb here.

² For those who’ve forgotten, Mandelson received a loan from Geoffrey Robinson, a businessman under investigation by Mandelson’s department.

³ As far as I can make out, this is a sobriquet he’s given her himself.

Would life as a librarian not better suit these invisible MPs?

Quentin Letts names and shames those that truly deserve it

“Then there are the likes of Mr Campbell (Lab, Tynemouth), Hon Members who so rarely leap to their hind hooves to shout up for their constituents that you wonder why they ever sought public office. Would life as a librarian not have suited them better?”

Which, on one level, is fair enough: trusting the ever vigilant theyworkforyou.com, Campbell has spoken in less debates than the average MP¹ However, although it may seem this way to a man whose job it is to watch debates, it’s not a competition. Not only does “Labour MP from Bradford, Terry Rooney … seldom catches the scorer’s eye“, no one does. There is no scorer.

The point was very well made by several constituents of Ilford North, who jumped to their MP’s defence in the online comments box². To take a reductio ad absurdum, a MP who spoke only in debates would be a very poor one: there are committees to sit on, votes to pass, written question to ask, policy forums to influence, local surgeries to hold, constituents to meet, visit and listen to, and so on. Merely speaking in debates is a very small component.³

Looking Alan Campbell, the brunt of Letts’ disdain, speaking in debates is also a poor proxy for ministerial effectiveness, which presumably has a much bigger ‘doing’ component than it does a ‘talking about’ part. Given that Mr Campbell had previously held a handful of small-scale back-office governmental positions, it’s not surprising that he’s now holding a minor back-office position at the Home Office. Again, as a reductio, would we prefer a ‘political personality’ like George Galloway to be working beneath stairs or someone with a bit of a track record quietly dealing with small bits of government?

Especially considering the magnitude of the position in question (Parliamentary Under-Secretary), the conclusion that all you have to do is ‘Keep your mouth shut..keep your nose clean…advance past go” towards some sort of golden stipend is something of an exaggeration. The glory is slight, the recompense inconsiderable.

This series of slights on MPs and belittlement of new ministers is a long way to go to pay a complement to Phil Woolas. A new favourite of the Mail for speaking their mind on immigration (or, as Letts puts it, having “a dash of mustard in his snout“), this column sees him already half-martyred, outlived by the unassuming Mr Campbell. Which leaves us with Letts’ own reductio – would you rather the unshowy administrator or the careless interviewee?

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¹ Interestingly, both non-Labour MPs picked on here do quite well on the ‘speaking in debates’ front, with both clocking up momre than 20 appearances in the last year.

² ” I have to tell you that in his Constituency of Ilford North, Lee is extremely well known“, say Irene Dunkley of Woodford Green Essex. “He’s a very diligent and helpful constituency MP, he has spoken in the Chamber on many occasions, and having worked hard on the Transport Select Committee is now an equally lively member of the Health Select Committee.” expanded D McDonald of Ilford, Essex.

³ Back at theyworkforyou, all of the named MPs are come out as ‘above average’ on some measure of involvement. Three of them also have websites in which they contrive to look very busy (Alan Campbell, Paul Truswell, Lee Scott). If anyone would like to email them to see what it is they do all day, I’m sure they’d be happy to inform you – theyworkforyou has all their contact details. [Other political websites are available]