Arriving back in London from Eastleigh on Friday afternoon with a stinking cold and the inevitable disappointment of a 4th place Labour finish, my mood was soured further by reading this piece from John O’Farrell. Not because it was a bad piece (far from it) but because it confirmed what I had suspected, a good man (who would have made a good MP) had decided that standing for Parliament wasn’t for him.
I’d spoken to O’Farrell about 14 hours earlier at 3am in Eastleigh Leisure Centre. Maria Hutchings had already been led away by Tory bouncers, the Lib Dems had stopped chanting “We Like Mike” and the council staff had all but packed away the modestly-sized counting area. John seemed upbeat, all things considered, and denied that the media coverage he’d faced would be the deciding factor in whether or not he’d stand again. Yet reading between the lines of his Guardian piece on Friday, it’s hard not to feel that the campaign of hate from the right wing press and the Tory Party hasn’t played its part. Being attacked in the Daily Mail as “the sickest man in politics” is an uncommonly unpleasant experience. Being smeared by the Prime Minister at PMQs as someone who “speaks up for terrorists” is downright disgraceful, and a terrible abuse of high office and parliamentary privilege. Cameron wouldn’t dare to say such a thing outside of the Commons, because it’s nonsense and O’Farrell could sue his arse off.
That O’Farrell came under attack for the comments in his book is not surprising. It was a candid, honest and funny portrayal of grim period in Labour politics. But the way they were taken out of context really was quite remarkable. Paul Richards has taken on this point more thoroughly and eloquently than I could, but let’s just say this – O’Farrell made these comments 15 years ago, in a bestselling book. There was no outcry at the time. And these comments were about thoughts he had 30 years ago, which he immediately regretted. In fact, the whole book is about his anguish at how he felt, acted and behaved back in the early 80s. But such nuance is lost on the kind of paper that pursues week-long vendettas over comedians making jokes in order to sell papers.
But we’ve come to expect such attacks in British politics now, regardless of their accuracy – and that makes me fear for the kind of politicians we’ll get in future.
If this is a problem now, then just wait until the Facebook and Twitter generation start standing for public office. No embarrassing teenage photo will be off limits. No stupidly “liked” status. No unthinking retweet. This has already started of course, but as young people begin to put their whole lives on social media – honest, foolish, accurate, lively representations of their personalities – they too will be savaged too for things that they have done or said 15 years earlier, or though 30 years earlier.
What a depressing state of affairs.
Only people who have done nothing, risked nothing, seen nothing and even felt nothing will be standing to represent us. Only those who have learned to avoid saying anything interesting and learned to blandify their personalities will survive in politics. How could such emotionless, flawless, bloodless automatons ever hope to represent anyone at all?
O’Farrell wasn’t the only such victim in this by-election though. It would have taken someone with a heart of stone to watch these scenes from the count as a speechless Maria Hutchings was bundled out of the building and think that this was a good way to conduct our politics. She was a risky candidate for the Tories to pick. She provided her critics (including this blog, and others) with numerous ways in which to criticise her candidacy. But she was colourful, and honest about her views. No-one deserved the kind of media hounding she received on Thursday night.
Next time the Tories will pick someone dull and dry who will read their CCHQ drafted speech from the page like a good little candidate. They’ll be as dull as Mike Thornton, the newly elected Lib Dem MP for Eastleigh, who was so thoroughly unmemorable I had to google his name. And because no-one will notice them – and because they’ll be totally unremarkable – that exceedingly boring Tory will probably win.
As one Senior Lib Dem was overheard saying in Eastleigh early on Friday morning - “You can’t have Lembit Opik’s all of the time”. Of course not. But such characters add colour to our politics, and the public find them entertaining, memorable and engaging. But our risk-averse political culture combined with a feral and desperate media won’t let such people get elected in future. So our lives, our future and our country is likely in the hands of the automatons.
And that’s a crying shame.