A Les Miserable moment in the House of Commons as we took to the (metaphorical) barricades

All politicians are romantics at heart. We want moments of clarity and courage. But in practice politics is about compromises, nuance, and least worst options

Chris Bryant
Friday 11 January 2013 19:58
Russell Crowe in 'Les Miserables'. Running time: 160 minutes
Russell Crowe in 'Les Miserables'. Running time: 160 minutes

I thought for one moment during Tuesday’s debate on the Government’s pusillanimous (and legislatively unnecessary) Bill to cap any rise in working age benefits to 1 per cent that, like the leader of the 1832 student revolutionaries in Les Misérables, Enjolras, Liam Byrne was either going to build a barricade or storm one.

Certainly spirits were high on the Labour side. Our benches were packed (unlike the Tories, who ran out of speakers). We had the song of angry men in our heart – and we were going to belt it out till it hurt Iain Duncan Smith’s ears. All of us knew the chorus. There aren’t two hermetically sealed classes of people, the workers and those on benefits. Two-thirds of those on benefits are in work. Teachers, soldiers and nurses will see their family finances cut. It’s a disgrace that the one boom industry in Britain is food banks.

Why should the most vulnerable pay the heaviest burden? The best way to cut the welfare bill is to get people into jobs. Austerity isn’t working. Less money in poor people’s pockets will further depress the economy in deprived areas so more shops will close, more people will be out of work. Everyone, new Labour, old Labour, classic Labour and just plain Labour Labour stood as one.

But I issue a word of warning. Every politician is by nature a romantic. I don’t know an MP that wasn’t inspired into politics by a passionate concern about something. We love a cause, especially a popular one. We dream of a moment of crystalline clarity when our courage, decisiveness and panache shine through, when we shall have done the right thing for the right reason even though all around us warned us off. We watch Lincoln or read about Wilberforce or consider Churchill or Mandela in their lone voice in the wilderness years and we think “I hope to God I’d have done the same”, even if we know that our particular smidgen of greatness would never be sufficient.

But politics is very rarely so clear cut. It is about compromises, about nuanced decisions, about least worst options, about rolling with some punches so that you can secure a greater victory. You have to build alliances, sometimes with people you don’t rate. You have to be practical and cunning. You have to fundraise. And even when I was on demonstrations in Pinochet’s Chile in 1986 we ensured everything was run like a military campaign.

This is why the less noticed moment of the week, Tom Watson’s announcement of Labour’s strategy to take 106 marginal seats at the next election, including those of 16 Lib Dems, was every bit as important as the barricade-storming on Tuesday. As Enjolras sang (sort of): “It is easy to sit here and swat them like flies, but the Conservatives will be harder to catch.”

Mandelson heard his people sing

I went to the first night of the original British RSC production of Les Mis at the Barbican in 1985, just before travelling to Peru to study liberation theology. It was even longer than the new movie, coming in at nearly five hours and had to be shoehorned into the West End by losing several songs. But years later I took Peter Mandelson to see the show (his first time, my sixth). It might surprise you to know that when I went to his constituency, Hartlepool, during the following general election he was using not the Labour Party’s stipulated campaign music round the streets, but “Do you hear the people sing?”.

Politicians rarely need understudies

Jared and I went to see The Magistrate by Arthur Wing Pinero at the National Theatre last Saturday. A great, vibrant production of an old Victorian warhorse of a play all about the dangers of telling lies. Sadly two of the leads were “indisposed”, which brings to six the number of times in the past four years that I’ve been handed one of those little notes saying that the understudies are on. I’m not complaining (much). These things happen. But I am struck that in my 11 years as an MP, I cannot remember an occasion when the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition was unavailable due to ill health.

Parliament’s esoteric schedule

We’ve not got much of this third session of Parliament left – 51 sitting days, in fact, before we get another Queen’s Speech. I fear that much of what we will be debating will convince the voters that we’ve completely lost sight of what really matters. While they worry about jobs and prices, we shall be debating parliamentary boundaries (again), the royal succession including changes to the 1351 Treason Act, the Act of Settlement and the Royal Marriages Act 1772. And we shall follow that up by several days of the “Marriage Equality” Bill (which the Government has made such a hash of so far that the Commons will probably have to rescue it). I support many of these measures, but the Commons is yet again in danger of seeming really out of touch.

Two speedy exits from the Lords

There has been much grumbling in Tory ranks about the appointment of the new Leader of the Lords, Lord Hill of Oareford. Leaving aside the Lady Bracknell-like carelessness of losing two government ministers in the Lords in the very week that you are trying to prove you have plenty of “gas in the tank”, and the fact that Hill tried to resign in the last reshuffle but failed to make it into David Cameron’s diary, the eurosceptics are busily fretting that Hill was special adviser to Ken Clarke (horror of euro-horrors) and was political secretary to John Major throughout the Maastricht Treaty saga. He’s bright, cerebral, they say, but more importantly, is he really “one of us”?

As for the idea that this was all planned, the removal people are the first to hear of a departing minister in the Lords. In both Strathclyde and Marland’s cases they had just 10 minutes’ notice.

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