In the future only emotionless, flawless, bloodless automatons will become MPs

March 3, 2013 3:12 pm

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.

  • Leon

    Very good point and interesting article. I wouldn’t be so sure though – at the moment we have a man who has been pictured with cocaine and a prostitute on his arm in the second most powerful position in the government. I think Britons are a forgiving people, and the mistakes of youth might even enhance the reputation of people running for office later in their lives. However, if people are above a mature age – aka were not teens or early twenties when making the mistakes – they might become more unelectable.

  • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

    “To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” ~ Elbert Hubbard.

    Despite this, and as an arch-pessimist about the state of party politics generaly, I don’t feel quite as pessimistic as Mark expresses himself here in this article. He’s been at the coalface of a by-election, which is an extraordinary event (not extraordinary as in ‘amazing’ but as in ‘not ordinary’).

    When a general election comes along there will not be the singular focus on individual candidates in the national media, and Labour candidates will have had plenty of time to build up personal relations with the local media that should dissipate much of the nastiness that John O’Farrell (a good man, and not your average candidate) suffered from.

    Also, though social media makes visible the stuff we may not want to be visible, on the other hand it makes inauthenticity problematic. There is a deterrance for anyone who has lived a bit of a life and made mistakes along the way, but likewise there is a problem for those who have subjugated their personalities to the machine; there is no place to hide now (unless you are lucky).

    It could be that an equalitarian, democratising push from social media will work to expose inauthenticity as much as those flawed real life personalities. Just think of Boris Johnson and now Michael Fabricant on the Tory side. The press love them mostly because they are interesting. There is a lesson there. Drones and clones may not work anymore now anyone and everyone is a critic.

    We shall see.

    http://afreeleftblog.blogspot.co.uk/

    • JoeDM

      Even in a General Election a candidate who had written the comments O’Farrell had written would have been picked up and it would have been on the front pages. The press would not be doing their job if it wasn’t.

      • rekrab

        Does the great British public only have partial morals? Where are those screams of horror when Ministers pass through legislation, that makes people take their own life? JoeDM, and if you knew your history, you would know that this nation has been responsible for some very serious crimes against humanity.

      • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

        The press make a profession of not doing their job as people think they should. I’m a journalist by trade but everyone knows that. Your certainty about O’Farrell is rather silly. Maybe it would have been picked up and put on the front pages in this hypothetical example, and maybe it wouldn’t – we don’t know and will never know because it ain’t happening.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

        Well he stood for Maidenhead in 2001 and nobody mentioned his comments… It normally helps to know what you are talking about.

  • http://twitter.com/MrWizbit Wizbit

    “Only people who have done nothing, risked nothing, seen nothing and even felt nothing will be standing to represent us.”

    So that’s no-one then…

    …which is fine by me! ;)

  • Monkey_Bach

    Isn’t it already like this now? The administration dictates policies and MPs go along with everything tamely and passively do as they’re told by their superiors? How many times have any party’s MPs tried to seriously sway or hold the executive to account? Eeek.

    • Daniel Speight

      The monkey is correct. It’s already here. Look at the younger generation in the shadow cabinet. Angela Eagle last week and Mary Creagh the week before on Question Time were an embarrassment.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    No embarrassing teenage photo will be off limits. No stupidly “liked” status. No unthinking retweet

    But this will also apply to the media hacks trying to dredge up non-stories which could make things interesting.

    • JoeDM

      Yes. That late night blog post, photo on facebook or tweet after being down the pub will be there to come back and haunt future politicians.

      • MonkeyBot5000

        I was talking about the reporters – their indiscrete posts and tweets will also be available for anyone to see.

  • JoeDM

    O’Farrell offered the press and his opponents an open goal and they took it. The Labour organisation should have done their homework. Supporting IRA terrorism and the the murder and attempted murder of British politicians is never going to be good for a mainstream Labour politician in an election.

    As for Maria Hutching, she was a good middle-of-the-road Tory candidate who was totally let down by her party’s lack of preparation and it’s ridiculously politically correct, metropolitan elite attitudes that are utterly out of touch with normal people.

    • http://twitter.com/ElliotBidgood Elliot Bidgood

      Saying no one with dreams should even bother with state schools is in touch with normal people, really? Supporting the very metropolitan David Cameron and his ‘clear plan to fix Britain’s economy’, the one that has us on the brink of a triple-dip, is in touch with normal people?

      As for O’Farrell, yes I was horrified when I heard of his writings, initially. He thought a stupid, horrible twisted thing 30 years ago. But by any fair strech of the imagination they were the rantings of an immature frustrated ultra left-wing student and didn’t constitute genuine support for terrorism – if they do, the ‘politicians should be strung up’ brigade are guility of incitement. Moreover, he was honest enough to write about them as part of an explanation of his personal journey, and I can only hope this whole episode teaches the remaining elements in the modern party that do still indulge in eliminationist ‘Die Thatcher Die’ rhetoric how vile and unacceptable their view is, and how it will only serve to damage the rest of what they stand for if they fail to grow up like John eventually did.

      In any case, lets get back to Mark’s point. Most people will think, say and do stupid things in their mispent youths. For a few people, these things were exceptionally stupid, and they unfortunately include some of our politicians – Boris Johnson trashed dining rooms and threw a flowerpot through a shop window, Nick Clegg set fire to a rare collection of cacti. The only reason we don’t know what Maria Hutchings’ youthful regrets were is because she hasn’t written or spoken of them, but in any case, none of this could be the least bit relevant. Nor is it relevant that David Cameron experimented with drugs, a very common mistake of youth, though since Cameron insisted on using the prime ministerial bully-pulpit to attack O’Farrell as Mark noted, I guess it’s worth pointing out that unlike the unpleasant thoughts that entered John O’Farrell’s mind in 1984, possessing and distributing drugs is actually illegal. Moreover, the youthful of actions of his party’s London mayor and his deputy in the coalition constituted criminal damage and arson, respectively. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, eh?

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    Isn’t it more of a lesson that when you have candidates who are outspoken, have big characters or a well known past, that you have to take care to match them to constituencies where it will work in their favour rather than against.

    There’s plenty of constituencies where John O’Farrell could romp home and his character/past would be an asset.

  • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

    His views weren’t taken out of context – I’ve read them and that is my honest view. But I hope we never find ourselves in a position where a childish online boast about a sexual conquest, or photos of a brutal initiation to the University rugby club, have a negative impact on someone’s life chances much later in life. But I think his comments were in a far, far different league to that.

    I don’t think any party can claim that they have never spun or deliberately misconstrued comments made by opponents for their political ends – including ‘online’ Labour supporters who do it often and effectively. When you have stretched the truth to make an opponent look bad, you instantly lose any moral highground or right to complain when others do it to you. The only answer is for everyone to grow up and stop doing it.

    But all in all, MPs are there to run the country, not entertain us. I’d rather a Parliament of boring MPs who know what they’re talking about, than a Parliament of funny people who have nothing but ideology to guide their views, any day of the week.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

      The spin put on his comments was that he had said it without regret, implying that he is a supporter of the IRA. If that’s not taking something out of context then I don’t know what is.

      • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

        My concern Alex is not whether he had regret, it’s that the very notion popped into his head in the first place. If he had his way on the Falkland’s, more British soldiers would have died trying to defend the democracy of the Islanders, never mind the Thatcher comments. I’m sure many people regret their actions, but it doesn’t mean they’re OK. As I’ve said before, it’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand. If a Tory candidate had said something equivalent, you wouldn’t be so forgiving. But O’Farrell wasn’t the main thrust of my comment.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

          He was talking about what he thought in the 80′s, and his views reflected most of those I recall from that era.

          • http://twitter.com/christof_ff christof_ff

            Whilst I think John O’Farrell would’ve made a good MP, and I’m certainly no fan of Thatcher’s, JO’F did say in black and white that he hoped Thatcher had died – about as extreme a sentiment as possible. Whilst that may well have gained a few votes in Glasgow, Newcastle or Liverpool, to expect that it would go down well in the home counties and the Daily Mail & the Tories should ignore that fact is naive.

            The DM/Tory reaction was almost a mirror-image to the hysteria of many on the left when Jeremy Clarkson made similarly tongue-in-cheek comments about shooting public-sector workers in front of their families, or Aiden Burley tweeted about ‘multicultural crap’ at the Olympics.

            Going forward, we need to decide if we want to throw stones or live in greenhouses.

          • althejazz

            I hadn’t heard that comment but I can honestly say that there will be jubilation in this house when thatcher finally pegs out, just a pity she didn’t do it forty years ago and save millions of people a lot of grief

  • Hamish Dewar

    Emotionless automatons would be an improvement.
    They are all that is needed to distil, represent and monitor the will of the people to the executive arm of government ie the Civil Service.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

    I think it will lead to a liberalisation of attitudes. Even the most boring candidate will have done something that could be dredged up from the depths of the internet. I imagine that over time the public will completely lose interest in media stories about politicians’ Facebook ‘likes’ from years ago because the younger generation will realise that they are in exactly the same boat.

  • aluneurig

    Is John O’Farrell being overtly sensitive about this at the moment? Yes, he said those things but whether they killed his electoral chances is questionable. It was more to do with the lack of labour presence in the area. The South East of England is real problem for the party.(Incidentally, I loved O’Farrells book. Would really recommend it for those involved in the political scene.)

    Most politicians have a some skeletons in the cupboard. I know Clegg got the same as well from Daily Mail, under the orders of Tories HQ, about an article he wrote about the second world war. But it didn’t really change anything in the end.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    There are very few ‘characters’ left in parliament. The front benches are both very bland, all told

  • http://twitter.com/susiegilb Susie Gilbert

    The neo-con press is our greatest problem. Where is Leveson? They will never let our voice be heard.

  • Pingback: Labour, Eastleigh and the crucifixion of St John O’Farrell – Telegraph Blogs

  • Jeremy_Preece

    We seem not to play on a level playingfield.

    “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.”

    Two points here:
    1. Right wing and Tory snide comments actually show that their authors are rattled. Cameron was certainly right to be rattled. The Daily Mail will stoop to anything if they consider that their view of the world is under threat.
    2. About holding people to comments made 15 years ago. If we are to do this then we have to hold Cameron, Osborne and Borris to account for their behavour in the Bullington Club, when they ran around trashing places and behaving in the same way as the bunches of yobs who they now feel that they are able to criticise.
    More recently then we should hold both Osborne and Cameron to account for their pledges to match Labour’s spending while in opposition, and also their total opposition to nay form of bankng regulations at all.
    What is source for the goose is source for the gander. Why are the Tories allowed to have it both ways?

    • AlanGiles

      It is terrible Daily Mail OTT stuff (but typical) to describe somebody as “the vilest man in…” in this case politics. I think that dubious honour with the present shower should be Duncan-Smith a man of low integrity, who lied on his CV and about his expenses and now wants to victimize the sick and disabled.

      I have to say though, to wish anybody dead, even for a moment, is a repulsive idea.

      • Monkey_Bach

        Many would agree with you.

        http://mikesivier.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/iain-duncan-smith-monster-of-the-year-2012/

        Mind you, Lord Freud, is cut from the same cloth. Apparently he’s been giving some thought to the number of sick and disabled people successfully appealing against ATOS decisions. His solution? You’d imagine any rational and humane person would immediately abolish ATOS or, at the very least, reform its testing procedures in order to avoid driving people off disability benefits onto Jobseeker’s Allowance, making them search endlessly for work that doesn’t exist, even though they are obviously not fit or well enough to secure or hold down a job. But no. Freud has other ideas. David Cameron’s “welfare expert” intends to solve the problem of faulty assessments by making it much more difficult for the sick and disabled to appeal against flawed decisions made by employees of ATOS in the first place! The injustice, pain, misery and death will continue unabated but swept under the carpet in order to avoid embarrassment.

        Iain Duncan Smith and David Freud, two peas in a pod, and monsters both.

        • AlanGiles

          They are both scumbags. Freud would have only been starting his “work” such as it was in 2010 if Blair had not appointed him in 2006. That’s something for the “Tony-can-do-no-wrong” brigade to think about.

      • Monkey_Bach

        Many would agree with you.

        http://mikesivier.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/iain-duncan-smith-monster-of-the-year-2012/

        Mind you, Lord Freud, is cut from the same cloth. Apparently he’s been giving some thought to the number of sick and disabled people successfully appealing against ATOS decisions. His solution? You’d imagine any rational and humane person would immediately abolish ATOS or, at the very least, reform its testing procedures in order to avoid driving people off disability benefits onto Jobseeker’s Allowance, making them search endlessly for work that doesn’t exist, even though they are obviously not fit or well enough to secure or hold down a job. But no. Freud has other ideas. David Cameron’s “welfare expert” intends to solve the problem of faulty assessments by making it much more difficult for the sick and disabled to appeal against flawed decisions made by employees of ATOS in the first place! The injustice, pain, misery and death will continue unabated but swept under the carpet in order to avoid embarrassment.

        Iain Duncan Smith and David Freud, two peas in a pod, and monsters both.

      • Monkey_Bach

        Many would agree with you.

        http://mikesivier.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/iain-duncan-smith-monster-of-the-year-2012/

        Mind you, Lord Freud, is cut from the same cloth. Apparently he’s been giving some thought to the number of sick and disabled people successfully appealing against ATOS decisions. His solution? You’d imagine any rational and humane person would immediately abolish ATOS or, at the very least, reform its testing procedures in order to avoid driving people off disability benefits onto Jobseeker’s Allowance, making them search endlessly for work that doesn’t exist, even though they are obviously not fit or well enough to secure or hold down a job. But no. Freud has other ideas. David Cameron’s “welfare expert” intends to solve the problem of faulty assessments by making it much more difficult for the sick and disabled to appeal against flawed decisions made by employees of ATOS in the first place! The injustice, pain, misery and death will continue unabated but swept under the carpet in order to avoid embarrassment.

        Iain Duncan Smith and David Freud, two peas in a pod, and monsters both.

  • ColinAdkins

    What this about the in the future Mark?
    I am sure O’Farrells emotions were shared by many. In the same way many share the emotions of Morrissey’s Margaret on a Guillotine or Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down
    I was more more concerend though about my Uncle Ted who was Tebbitt’s chauffeur.

  • GAG

    I agree totally with Monkey_Bach. . it is already like this now especailly with the career politicians who have never lived in the real world . . .

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