I fear for a new world of hardened politics

kezia dugdaleScottish 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In recent times the word “surgery” has sometimes been replaced by “advice session”, and locations have moved from community centres and dusty church halls to supermarkets, following the flow of where the people are.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.

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7 thoughts on “I fear for a new world of hardened politics

  1. In so many ways Jo Cox’s death is shocking. It can’t be rationalised because it is irrational. It defies explanation or justification. This is why it troubles us so much. I earnestly hope the trial of the man accused of her murder provides her family with some answers.

    Her death has, however, raised questions about the risks our MPs face (along with their staff) and the contempt with which our “political elite” are held. Whilst this debate has resulted in much handwringing in England, in Scotland it is nothing new. During the build up to the independence vote we saw the hate and vitriol in politics increase. We saw people assume the moral high ground and from those lofty heights anyone holding an opposing view was fair game. Many MPs were denounced as “quislings” and were subjected to “community justice”.

    For many, opposing views could not be respected or even heard. Public meetings moved from heckling (part of our political culture) to people being shouted down. Our great referendum became, for many, about good versus evil.

    The EU referendum has done the same in the rest of the UK. People are being told that somebody else is responsible for their problems and that getting rid of them will solve everything… and we’ll all be richer when that happens. The barrier to reaching this nirvana, of course, a corrupt political elite so called experts and a biased media. The parallel with Scottish independence debate is clear.

    Outside the binary world of our referendums what people don’t see is that the “political elites” of both sides actually work together on many issues and that much of the work they do in their surgeries makes a huge difference to their constituents. That’s why Jo Cox was respected so much locally – she did a good job of helping people with the boring stuff like noisy neighbours, dog crap, bin collections and planning issues.

    I’m convinced that if more people met their local MP, MSP or councillor we’d all have more respect for them. Some are better than others, but the vast majority are well intentioned and want to make a difference to people’s lives.

    1. Scott,

      You’re adding fuel to the fire by trying to score political points over this tragic incident.

      There are bad elements on all sides of all debates. Furthermore, all political movements have their fair share of low lifes.

        1. The nature of political discourse in the UK only follows the very nature of politics in the UK.

          If you believe the nature of political discourse in the UK is rotten then you also have to accept its as a direct result of the nature of politics in the UK itself.

          But I would go further and say you should also accept the medias not insignificant part in the perception of the discourse in the manner in which they report political discourse relative to their support or not of the politics they report.

          And just for the record its never a good idea to use the likes of David Torrance as an example of anything other than everything that is wrong with political reporting in the media.

    2. What “community justice” was that? Proof please. What, incidentally, is the difference between “heckling” and being “shouted down”?

      As for whether Scottish political discourse is better than English discourse. All I can do is compare what happened in 2014 with what happened in 2015. I cannot remember English people being demonised during the 2014 campaign the way that Crosby’s poster campaign demonised Scots (No, it wasn’t just the SNP.) during the 2015 GE or immigrants have been and are being demonised now.

  2. I just heard Tom Harris say on STV that this result changes nothing. That Scotland still does not have the right to hold a second referendum.
    Now Labour in Scotland has to make its mind up.
    Comments please.

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