Mary Ann Sieghart: A sprinkling of decency over politics

Douglas Alexander has been telling friends recently how wonderful it was to be working for someone who simply wouldn't allow negative briefing

Share
Related Topics

One of the reasons why I was relieved to stop writing about politics in June 2007 was that I could see a Government coming that would be nasty and brutish. (Luckily it was also quite short.) Gordon Brown was a bully and a thug, and some of the people around him were even worse. One of the reasons why I am enjoying writing about politics again is that Brown has gone and the Coalition has brought a return to civilised ways of doing politics. And now, with the election of a Miliband as Labour leader – either brother would have done for this purpose – we are in the delightful position of having each of the three main parties run by men who are, at heart, really rather nice.

Take Ed Miliband's first Prime Minister's Questions last week. To start with, he seemed almost too slow and gentle. But, by the end of his six questions, he had managed to get the better of David Cameron through calm, reasonable persistence. He made a couple of jokes at the Tory leader's expense, but they were funny rather than cruel: even Cameron laughed. It was proof that in adversarial political combat it is possible to take the poison out of the barb without lessening its sting.

Both Miliband brothers are fundamentally decent, and for that we should be grateful to Ralph and Marion, who clearly brought them up well. Douglas Alexander, who spent many years in the Brown camp before ending up as David's campaign manager, has been telling friends recently how wonderful it was to be working for someone who simply wouldn't allow negative briefing.

At Ed's first meeting of the new Shadow Cabinet last week, he said: "I won't be briefing against colleagues and I don't expect colleagues to be briefing against others or myself ... We will have no return to the factionalism of the past." Well, let's see. (Were you listening at the back, Mr Balls?) But it's certainly an improvement on a regime in which, from the top down, bitching about colleagues was the norm.

We could all see what was wrong with the Brown administration. But the backbiting disfigured the Blair regime too. The Prime Minister wasn't strong enough to rein in a Chancellor who thought his enemies were next door in No 10 rather than across the Commons floor on the Tory benches. I saw the venom come out of Balls's mouth when he sneered at Blairites, and now we hear from Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, that Brown refused to address a word to him in the 13 years he did the job. How childish and petulant is that?

What a change we have now under the Miliband regime. Balls, who failed to win the leadership precisely because of his thuggish reputation, hasn't been given the job he wanted. Instead we have as Shadow Chancellor the thoroughly likeable Alan Johnson: the only person he's been heard to do down is himself. Nick Brown, Gordon's plotter-in-chief, was told by Miliband not to stand for election as chief whip. Meanwhile, even Tom Watson, a big Brown supporter who engineered the 2006 coup against Blair, wrote last week: "We've been on a long march through an arid desert of cynicism in recent years. So, Ed: thank you for giving me my dignity back by treating me like an adult. In return, I promise to stop behaving like a child." Well, peal the bells for the sinner that repenteth.

On the other side of the House, the constraints of coalition have also helped to civilise politics. It is much harder to plot and scheme when everything has to be argued out with members of a different party and held up against a written Coalition agreement. Cameron and Clegg genuinely trust each other. Ministers have been surprised to find disagreements don't tend to run along party lines; they more often pit, say, Chris Huhne, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve against Liam Fox, Owen Paterson and Danny Alexander. So there is no room for the traditional party rivalry. And, for the moment at least, there isn't much factionalism inside the Conservative Party either, except for the occasional – and predictable – David Davis eruption.

The Coalition is going to have to do horrible things, not least this week. But there's still a sense among voters that the style in which it's doing them is a refreshing break from the past. In the outside world, we are all used to having to compromise with other people at work, to create a consensus from many viewpoints, and it has always seemed absurd that politicians were instead obsessed with magnifying differences between each other. Now, at last, they are working together.

But if government and party leadership are much improved, the most glaring anachronism is now the Commons chamber. Ed Miliband may be trying a kinder, gentler approach, but backbenchers aren't. And many of the new intake of MPs are horrified. "The older MPs are staggeringly partisan and staggeringly narrow-minded," says one new (male) Tory MP. "The chamber is incredibly male and therefore rather inept and foolish."

A new female Labour MP told me: "I'm still surprised by how mad seemingly normal colleagues are when they enter that chamber. All those weird noises and grunts and 'Aaahs'! I can't make those noises. I don't want to make those noises!"

The last time there was a great influx of new MPs – in 1997 – they managed to reform the hours that the House worked and change Labour policy to make it friendlier to women and families. But many of the new MPs found they had to go native – to start behaving like the old ones – before anyone would listen to them.

This time is a little different. There are 232 new bugs – more than a third of the House. They are not as easily intimidated as their predecessors, partly because the old guard have been discredited by the expenses scandal. The old guard, in turn, are feeling a little too bruised and uncertain to pull rank. Many of the new intake have already found themselves either elected onto select committees or in shadow posts in Ed Miliband's new regime.

Some are confident enough to disagree with the party line. In an adjournment debate on people trafficking last week, for instance, there were new Tory backbenchers asking their own Government why it hadn't signed up to the EU directive. Others rebelled over the Bill on EU funding. They want to see Parliament assert itself against the executive and look better to the public.

The Speaker, John Bercow, understands how unattractive the chamber looks. He often says so during PMQs, when he tries to get the barracking to stop. But many older MPs feel disdain for the Speaker and take little notice of his pleas. What they really need is a telling-off from their own leaders. If Cameron, Clegg and Miliband were to order their own MPs to stop behaving like playground bullies, they might get somewhere.

There's a prize out there to be won. Politicians want to be thought better of. They don't enjoy the contempt with which they are treated. More particularly, though, the female vote is very uncertain at the moment. Miliband has his eye on it – his defence of child benefit was specifically aimed at aggrieved mothers.

Women, on the whole, hate thuggery more than men. They tend to prefer good-natured agreement to poisonous dispute. If the manner in which politics is conducted is becoming more civilised, then female voters are likely to reward the politicians who made it so. Cuts are always going to feel brutal, but there's no need for the politics around them to be brutal too.

m.sieghart@independent.co.uk twitter.com/MASieghart

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
There were many, many contributory factors to Amy Winehouse going off the rails, which are explored to fine effect in 'Amy'  

Watching the Amy Winehouse film brought back memories of my battle with bulimia - and the help that took three years to come

Natasha Devon
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map