Westminster's own marathon: Sacrificing high ideals for low politics


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The Independent Online

Among the 35,000 runners in today's London Marathon are 10 MPs – six Labour and four Conservative (I don't know why there aren't any Lib Dems, but I guess you can't run in sandals, ho ho). This is the largest contingent from Parliament ever to run in the world's greatest 26.2-mile endurance race, and between them they will raise thousands of pounds for charity. Rivalries across the Commons have been suspended, with sponsorship from Labour to Tory and vice versa, including donations from George Osborne to Ed Balls and Sadiq Khan. Khan, a first-time runner in the marathon who has already raised more than £15,000 for the Evening Standard's Dispossessed Fund, tells me that, after one of the worst weeks for MPs, the cross-party support and hard work for charity shows that Westminster's politicians are not all "greedy money-grabbers".

Khan is broadly right, and of course this is inspiring stuff. Much of the greed and creaming off of taxpayers' money during the last Parliament has been eradicated; the Maria Miller affair was just a hangover from the 2009 scandal, a last bit of rotten wood from a diseased tree. MPs elected in 2010 profess to be squeaky-clean, while those elected before who survived the scandal claim to be horrified at what went on. Yet, five years on, is Parliament really reformed? It doesn't seem so.

The grisly revelations of the Channel 4 "Sexminster" investigation into harassment, sexual advances and bullying by MPs of their staff show that the rotten old tree has regrown from diseased roots. After the Lord Rennard scandal re-emerged earlier this year, I wrote that, in my experience, harassment in Parliament was rare. I must now admit I was wrong; this behaviour is simply kept hidden from view. But the problem is not just about a handful of MPs abusing their staff. Party leaders and ministers routinely go back on their word, introduce controversial policies that were not in manifestos, while ditching ones that were – including the very one that was supposed to restore trust in politics: the power of constituents to recall their local MP. The green benches are stuffed to the gunwales when MPs vote on their own salaries, yet almost empty during a debate on the bedroom tax.

When I first walked into the Palace of Westminster as a young political journalist in April 2001, I felt honoured, in awe of the history and the power. Now, with the exception of some MPs who I know are there for the right reasons, fighting for their constituents – I feel gloomy disdain for our political system and its players.

With the next election the most open in years, more than ever the main parties seem to be sacrificing high ideals for low politics: whatever it takes to win. Are any good laws being made or debated? Not many. Is it any wonder MPs are leering at their staff, throwing things at researchers and generally behaving badly, when there is nothing else to do? If this were a normal first term of a government, we would have just completed the first week of the 2014 General Election campaign. But the five-year, fixed-term parliament has made the inhabitants of Westminster, starved of hard work and law-making, succumb to a strange cabin fever. There is a saying about fish and visitors going off after four days. Perhaps this can be applied to parliaments: they turn foetid after four years. Never mind today's marathon, for voters this next year is going to feel like one long slog.

What the Dickens?

Can you recite the first line of A Tale of Two Cities? Me neither. Yet this is what one MP said of Sajid Javid on the morning he became Culture Secretary. Others have questioned, more openly, whether Javid is interested in the arts. Admittedly, being a fan of Star Trek, as Javid is, doesn't exactly suggest the MP for Bromsgrove will be rushing to get tickets to Faust at Covent Garden, but I think there's a nasty undertone in the comments about his suitability for the job. I don't remember anyone using the Tale of Two Cities line about Jeremy Hunt, Ben Bradshaw, or even Maria Miller, who was educated at a comprehensive school. But it seems Javid's working-class Asian background is being pre-judged, shall we say. In any case, why wouldn't the Rochdale-born son of a bus driver have read Dickens? And if not, surely someone who has transformed himself from a well-paid banker to an MP has the ability to take up new interests?

Necessary women

After the mini-reshuffle last Wednesday, there was something of a kerfuffle over the splitting up of Maria Miller's equality and women's minister role. Nicky Morgan, the financial secretary to the Treasury, becomes Women's minister, but voted against gay marriage, so cannot stand for Equality, which goes to Javid. This prompted questions over why, in 2014, we need a Women's minister at all? It has been claimed that this job is basically a minister for mothers, looking after concerns about childcare and losing out at work, even though there is already a childcare minister. Yet I would argue that the job goes far beyond issues of motherhood. Women who don't have children are still under-represented, not least in politics where female MPs are just one in five. There is still a huge gap between the pay of men and women. Without giving someone responsibility to achieve equality for women – and be held to account if she fails – then the cause of half the nation's population will be lost.

Short shrift

Speaking of the marathon, David Cameron took great delight at PMQs in ridiculing Balls's choice of running gear in a photo opportunity last week. The shadow Chancellor had been wearing what the Prime Minister called a "very curious pair of black leggings" (see above) to pose for photographers. Cameron, who used to cycle to work every day as an MP before he entered Downing Street, has an intense dislike of Lycra – and once told me he would never wear it, favouring an ordinary pair of cotton shorts. He used to poke fun at George Osborne, who would always get on his bike in a pair of tight black Lycra shorts, before both had to give up the daily ride for the sake of high office.