Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Key To Good Politics Is To Keep To The Question

This is not a plea for ‘polite’ (namby-pamby ‘don’t-we-all-love-each-other’) politics – indeed, political debate must always be furious.
But it IS a plea that we should stick to the issues, avoid abuse and bullying, and engage in solution-focussed debate.

Two things happened today which have prompted me to make this blog.

Mr Mark Ferguson and PMQs
The first was Mark Ferguson’s response to PMQs today in his Labour List article. He was repulsed by them and – as I keep repeating ad nauseamI agree. So in fact does Ed Miliband.
What upset Mr Ferguson was the Prime Minister’s performance – dodging questions, bullying, blustering. He also abhorred, as I have, the MPs' raucous, bawdy and dishonourable behaviour – for most of us, it is half-an-hour of our representatives proving that they are unfit to represent us.

As for myself, the hiatus came when Labour MP Jack Dromey asked a question about extortionate rents. To be fair to the Prime Minister, Mr Dromey couldn’t resist tagging onto the end some political jibe about ‘the failure of the government’s house-building programme’, so perhaps he didn’t deserve a sensible reply but – to be honest about Mr Cameron – he didn’t get one. The Prime Minister (i.e. the senior politician in the country, and our representative amongst the nations) answered thus:
“Coming from a Party which saw house-building fall to its lowest level since the 1920s, I think I’ll take that with a lorry-load of salt.”

It was an utterly worthless reply to a question which – however clumsily projected – affects not just the prosperity of hundreds of thousands of householders but (now we have the cap) the very roof over their heads.
For me, it simply broadcast (literally) the utter worthlessness of PMQs within our democracy.

They are not a place where the questions facing our nation are considered. They are a place for shouting down opposing views, for humiliating and browbeating your opponents into submission, and for scoring cheap, trite … despicable … points.

Mr Andrew Emmerson and #TweetlikeEoinClarke
Beyond tweeting Mr Ferguson to remind him that this is one of my own bête-noirs, I would probably have left it at that – it is tiresome to simply rehearse endlessly what you know already.

But this evening I was upset to see a hashtag opened on twitter to the effect #TweetlikeEoinClarke. A Liberal Democrat blogger named Andrew Emmerson was ridiculing Mr Eoin Clarke.

Eoin Clarke runs an earnest ‘Labour-left’ blog called the Green Benches, and the article which excited Mr Emmerson’s derision was Why I Detest Consumer Choice – a simple little piece which argued that patient choice is not always ‘the best thing’ for poorly people, any more than a list of coffee drinks as along as your arm is any use for all but Starbucks aficionados.

Before we go any further, I have to say, personally, that I agree on both counts! When I go into Starbucks or Costa Coffe, I always choose a Latte, as much for safety’s sake as anything else. And if I have a heart attack, I hope that the paramedic will send me as quickly as possible to the most appropriate hospital, and stuff my ‘choice’! But there we have it – you are entitled to disagree.

What I would NOT want you to do, however, when I have shared my thoughts with you, is to start up a ‘let’s-laugh-at-John-D-Clare’ hashtag and invite your friends to mock me. Which is what Mr Emmerson proceeded to do with Eoin Clarke.

Staying On Topic
Now, to be fair to the hashtag, it never amounted to more than a couple of dozen smart-alec statements … and most of them were from Mr Emmerson himself, enthusing statements such as:
‘I love that #tweetlikeEoinClarke is actually taking off!’

And, somewhat arrogantly, but good-naturedly:
‘Right, I've had my fun with #tweetlikeeoinclarke, Carry it on dear acolytes! i'm off to do some work’

Nevertheless, after today’s despicable PMQs, Mr Emmerson just ‘got my goat’ tonight.

Not because it has done any real damage. It took me five minutes to turn it into a ‘let’s-praise-Eoin-Clarke’ hashtag, and quite frankly I suspect that Eoin Clarke will have been stunningly unbothered by it anyway.
No – I reacted simply because it was yet another example of the base sump to which politics in our country so easily descends.

Here we have an issue of critical importance to people – literally, a life or death decision: how much choice DO we need in the health services?
And, within seconds of a thoughtless tweet, we have reduced it to personalities, and a string of cheap, meaningless, mocking jibes.

I am NOT going to lay into Mr Emmerson. He is 23, and two years ago he was campaigning to become Winchester Students’ Union’s Ethical and Environmental Officer. He runs a fairly inoffensive blog, but the fact that he has called it The Yellow Bastard tells you all you need to know about the man. He is one of those confident, outspoken young men who will be the leaders of the future, and I wish him well.
But he has demeaned himself in this case.
He has wandered off topic, and attacked the man, not the message.

In all things be edifying
St Paul’s message – ‘in all things be edifying’ (= make sure that everything you say is constructive) – is as apposite to our politicians today as it was to the quarrelling Corinthians all those centuries ago.
And until we can learn to sit down and talk about THE ISSUES without resorting to abuse, to bullying, to showboating and point-scoring – until we adopt solution-focussed politics – we shall continue to get laws which are unsuitable and harmful.

This applies as much to Mr Cameron at the apex of his career, as it does to Mr Emmerson at the beginning.
But today, I am sorry to say, found them both wanting.

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