A high-ranking politician flings from the sky like Icarus, a reminder that few careers carry such high risk. Why would anyone do it?
At the top rung of that political ladder, Labor candidate Kim Leadbeater faces voters from Batley and Spen on Thursday. No one knows the dangers better than her, defending the West Yorkshire seat where her sister Jo Cox was brutally murdered. This campaign has unexpectedly turned cruel and abusive. And on top of that, we’ve seen the explosive entry of George Galloway, now at the helm of his renowned Workers’ Party of Britain, divisively targeting the “Muslim” vote.
Keir Starmer is from Galloway single objective since its objective is to wreck this partial election to recover the Labor Party for “the left”, or whatever its strange religious-sectarian conservative politics may be called. “I am eating Labor alive,” he boasts to Russian television channel RT. Outsiders yell at Leadbeater, yelling aggressive questions while accusing her of “LGBT indoctrination in schools.”
West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin, who has just resigned as a constituency MP, reports that Labor activists “were prodded, pushed and forced to the ground and kicked in the head.” However, I can’t find Leadbeater a victim. Campaigning, she tells me: “I am very resistant, but I am angry for the people here. What happens when this circus leaves town, these outsiders with their own agendas and egos move on? We have to live here together afterward. “
The bitter irony is that while culture wars rage down on her from left to right, Leadbeater has spent the past five years working with the Jo Cox Foundation for “a more civilized public discourse.” Anyone watching this and ever considered running for elected office might have a second and third thought.
In these final days of the campaign, Leadbeater is hearing much disgust at the hypocrisy of former health secretary Matt Hancock, setting rules for others, ignoring them himself. Of course, Hancock should have gone over his crony contracts and the deaths at the nursing home, one among a seriously disgraced cabinet, led by a disgraced prime minister. The ministerial standards advisor resigned, not them.
But still, be careful with Glee. Every time respect for politicians is reduced, democracy itself takes a hit. It is a dangerous state of mind to worship democracy and yet despise its practitioners, placing them among real estate agents, debt collectors, and journalists. Despite the exceptionally inadequate and unsavory current cabinet, despite Boris Johnson’s purge of decent conservatives, I respect the majority of those in politics. In my experience, most are well-intentioned, even those with whom I strongly disagree.
Most would have an easier life and earn more in other occupations. Most will remain as deputies, the few who reach ministerial rank will last for a few years. Good deputies who deal with specialized issues can make valuable reforms, without much glory. Politics has gotten a lot tougher. Gone are the days of occasional stately visits to his constituencies: Duncan Sandys, MP until 1974, boasted that he only appeared once a year in his Streatham patch, where I lived. Jack Straw says that even Barbara Castle, of blessed memory, rarely visited Blackburn.
Parliamentarians were national legislators at the time, not local councilors. Now, every week, in their surgeries, as they deal with the problems of the voters, the voters are often aggressive, demanding and unreasonable. However, MPs are also blamed for leaving green pews empty in the debates, resulting in sloppy legislation such as the disastrous privatization of Chris Grayling’s parole, renationalized this week.
An invasive scrutiny of all aspects of their lives, neglected families, children harassed by their parents’ occupation – is the initial thrill of winning office worth it? Commentators must remember this too, sitting in our comfortable crows’ nests hurling criticism as ministers come and go.
And is the lack of respect for politicians getting worse? Professor Bobby Duffy of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, and formerly of Ipsos Mori, says they have always been disrespected. Even on the eve of D-Day in 1944, only a third of voters thought politicians were motivated to do whatever they could for the country, according to a Gallup poll. That question, repeated in 2014, five years after the MPs spending scandal, found that only 10% thought they were selflessly motivated. But don’t panic, says Duffy, they never liked them. You are right: graffiti in ancient Greece and Rome rudely denounced the first practitioners of democracy. The necessary process of soliciting votes and appeasing voters invites contempt.
Tough, articulate, smart, with the deepest local roots and a strong sense of what he wants for the constituency and the country, Leadbeater is capable of dealing with all the harassment. But where is this “civilized public discourse” that you have been campaigning for in the years since the Cox assassination?
Still, don’t lose hope. Although Keir Starmer is coming under fire for lack of ferocity in culture wars, the public may end up preferring a bit of civility in the Commons to intimidating bravado. King’s College research shows that more than half of the electorate more in tune with nuance and restraint. They say that people have the politicians they deserve. Labor victory at Batley and Spen would be a vote for a better politics.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism