Sir David Amess’s brutal killing has sparked a lot of deep reflection among MPs. Not just about their safety, but also over how unpopular they now are. One prominent backbencher told me he has “had enough” and plans to step down. Another, a former Tory minister, said hating MPs was “the culture now”.
“The public will care about what happened to David for another 24 hours max, then the media will go back to sneering at us, and off we go again.”
He’s not wrong. But why is this so? Why do we detest our MPs? Part of it is because politics has developed a bad name in the past decade thanks to multiple governing failures. From the Iraq debacle to the credit crunch, the expenses scandal, the great Brexit impasse and, most recently, so many needless coronavirus deaths.
It’s not just politicians who’ve taken a reputational hit. YouGov run a tracker on how much the public trust 50 established professions, going back to 2003. Trust has decreased in almost all of them, from family doctors (down from 93 per cent in 2003 to 84 per cent now), to school teachers (88 per cent to 73 per cent), senior police officers (72 per cent to 55 per cent) and, yes, broadcast journalists (81 per cent to 44 per cent). Eek.
Levels of trust have remained constant in two professions: judges, who remain on 67 per cent, and estate agents, who haven’t shifted from 16 per cent. Members of Parliament are now down there too, trusted by just 16 per cent of the population.
As a society, we are now considerably less deferential. Some might say that’s a good thing. Plus, it has been worse for MPs. When the old Houses of Parliament burned down in October 1834, politicians were hated so much that a loud crowd gathered to cheer. Though that won’t particularly reassure today’s MPs.
Hating our MPs may satisfy at times, and a few do deserve condemnation for their venal self-service. But perhaps we could admit that rebuilding faith in politics and reversing the vicious spiral is an ambition we should all have.
So what’s to be done? The bottom line is each of us can do our bit.
I’ll start with mine. Political journalism is often far too quick to leap to judgment, and too wilfully uninterested in understanding often immensely complicated challenges. I take my trade’s share of the blame.
The public also need to stop and think a little more. Don’t just swallow the next anger-filled tweet or meme you see on social media because it gives you a kick. First consider what the motives of the person posting might be.
Social media companies have a major role to play, too, as a big part of the problem. So much horrific abuse has been normalised by its repeated recurrence on Twitter or Facebook.
The Hampstead and Kilburn MP, Tulip Siddiq, has revealed she is abused online every single day, and gets violent threats — of rape or the butchering of her family — once every three weeks. The MP for Barking, Margaret Hodge, said she received 90,000 abusive social media mentions — 1,500 per day — during one two-month period of Labour’s anti-Semitism storm. Big tech have to rid their sewer sites of this. If they don’t, government must.
Ministers are making a start. I understand they intend to end users’ anonymity. Not to other users — which would harm whistle blowers and victims in situations such as domestic abuse — but to the sites themselves, who will then have a duty to share trolls’ true identities with the police.
And MPs? Well they have the biggest part to play in the battle to save themselves. First, politicians should start admitting they are not as in control of every event as they like to profess, because all that does is breed disappointment. Global trends, such as today’s energy price crisis, now dominate in our inter-connected world, not prime ministers.
Obviously, they can also treat each other more civilly, as none of them are “scum”. And finally, they must end the modern political addiction to seeking out divides. Creating a polarising wedge, where the slim majority fall on your side and you win the vote — be it on Brexit, the culture wars or basic tribalism (“I’d never kiss a Tory”) — has been the rage for five years now.
Politicians must reverse that dire habit. After all, we all get the politics we deserve. All of us.
In other news...
My lucky iPad made it home from the skip
Last week, I left my iPad on a late night South Western Railways train. I tracked its progress on the Find My app to Haslemere, where it stayed in a corner of the train station. I dutifully waited for it to be transported up to Waterloo where I was told I could retrieve it.
Five days on, it still hadn’t left Haslemere station. So I went there, but the friendly station staff had no record of it. I looked at the app again, and pinpointed its precise location — the station skip. And there it was inside it. Thank goodness for modern technology, and the kindness of the station manager who ploughed through a dozen smelly bags with me.
Powell: the best President the US never had
A titan of US politics died on Monday. Colin Powell fought in Vietnam, made it to four-star general, then National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and finally the first black US Secretary of State. Not bad for the son of penniless Jamaican immigrants who grew up on the mean streets of the Bronx.
While presenting Times Radio’s Drive programme this week, I asked his former state department spokesman Richard Boucher why Powell didn’t run for president, as he would definitely have won? “I asked him once,” Boucher said. “He told me: ‘Every morning I woke up thinking I was going to run for president, I didn’t feel good. And every morning I woke up thinking I was not going to run for president, I felt fine.’ He just didn’t feel comfortable spending his life worrying about politics, as opposed to worrying about what’s the right thing to do.”
Yet another reason why Powell was the best president America sadly never had.
Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio
What do you think can be done to restore civility to politics? Let us know in the comments below.