Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale shares the reality of life as a front-line politician, and her hope that the unimaginable horror of last week does not mean a politician’s tough skin must now be replaced by armour.
Picture a politician. What do you see? A suit? A rosy complexion aided and abetted by a lifetime of free lunches, set against the luxury of a Parliament, or indeed a Palace?
“What do you do all day?” is a question I’m often asked. They see us all sitting in the Parliament chamber making speeches, listening to others give theirs, or dutifully doing our emails whilst making the place look busy. But that’s a far cry from the full story.
Outwith parliamentary duties, elected politicians from your councillor to your MP hold surgeries on Fridays and Saturdays.
I’ve often wondered why they are called surgeries. Whilst you might queue like you would to see a doctor, it’s rare to present a set of symptoms, expect a diagnosis and a course of treatment. In truth people often find themselves at the door of an MP or MSP because they have nowhere else to go, no one else to turn to. If you’re a list MSP like me, you might have fewer cases but they are often tougher because your constituent has tried every other avenue. The buck stops with you.
In recent times the word “surgery” has sometimes been replaced by “advice session”, and locations have moved from community centres and dusty church halls to supermarkets, following the flow of where the people are. The irony is that the impact of austerity and cuts on public services means there are fewer community “centres” than before, despite an ever greater need for them.
They’ve perhaps been renamed “advice sessions” because very often advice is all we have to offer. In an increasingly globalised and marketised world, it’s just harder to fix things. That was a real shock to me when I was first elected. I was used to casework having been a welfare adviser, and if you knew how the system worked you could often make it work for you. In politics, I soon realised that your time was far more productively spent trying to change the system. That’s something to which Jo Cox devoted her entire life.
If you want to be a decent elected representative, you have to go to where the people are, and for me and many others that often means their own homes. I do regular roving surgeries. That involves writing out to 500 houses at time offering people appointments in their own home. Over five years I’ve offered 30,000 homes that service, spending countless days jumping from one stranger’s living room to another and I’ve often done it alone.
Writing that now makes me feel daft, as if I was taking a huge risk and placing far too much trust in humanity itself. I didn’t feel that way a few days ago. I just viewed it as part of my job, and thought I was tough enough and strong enough to handle myself in those situations. Not through any sense of arrogance, but after well over a decade of door knocking you develop a very refined sense of body language and can assess risk well and instantly.
In my time as a Labour activist and politician I’ve got myself out of some pretty scary situations. I’ve stepped over drug infested stairwells in by-elections. I’ve witnessed a violent robbery. I’ve experienced several serious threats to my own safety, three of which were serious enough to go to the police.
Swallow all of that and remember Jo Cox worked in war zones. She was a hundred times tougher, wiser and smarter than I’ll ever be. She will also have knocked countless doors. I don’t doubt for a second that alarms bells would have been ringing the nano second she saw her attacker, but it was all far too tragically late.
Politicians are public servants. They should be at your service. They should be on your high street and in your living room. Their low paid, over-worked, invaluable staff who carry their ideals and all the actual hard graft required to deliver on it should be congratulated and recognised far more than they are for what they do. And we should all be kinder to one another, not just in politics but in life.
I’ve always believed that you have to have a tough skin to be in politics, but not one so tough that you lose the power of emotion. You mustn’t lose the ability to feel what people feel, to understand their lives so that you can try and represent and transform them.
I fear for a new world now where a tough skin has to be replaced by armour. Have our politics hardened so? Does this have to be the new normal? Or can Jo Cox’s death be the end of this?
In the best traditions of democracy, it’s up to the people to decide.