I have to admit that I am naive. I’m well aware that politics can be a dirty game, but the revelations from Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor’s memoirs that have been released over the past few days have shocked me. Damian McBride’s stories of smear campaigns and attempted character assassinations against those in Brown’s own party who were considered to be a threat to his ambitions talk of a party that was hugely dysfunctional at the highest level. There may still be a debate over how much Gordon Brown knew of what his press officer was up to, but that doesn’t distract from the fact that his activities further stirred mistrust and destabilised the work of the Labour cabinet during a time when the Blair-Brown feuding was at its most intense. When Jesus talked about a house divided against itself not being able to stand, he wasn’t wrong. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s personal war was inevitably going to doom the Labour party to failure of government.
In theory the calling of a politician is to serve the electorate, putting the interests of the country before personal ambition, but in McBride’s eyes the exercise was power and control at any cost. His frank disclosures of what went on behind closed doors is a reminder that whilst the majority of politicians enter into politics for the right reasons, seeking power always has a corruptive side that can be hard to resist. As Dan Hodges in the Telegraph writes when discussing the Blair-Brown years:
‘Anyone who thinks Tony Blair or Gordon Brown or those who worked for then were quintessentially evil doesn’t understand government, and how it really works. It is not populated by political innocents. It is a car crash of power and ambition and jealousy and hope and pride and bravery and cowardice and triumph and failure. In other words, it is populated by ordinary men and women, with all the flaws that implies.’
Damian McBride’s frank openness in his book Power Trip might help us to go some way to understanding the effects of desiring power, but it doesn’t make them any easier to stomach. Somewhere along the line party leaderships appear to have lost the plot, with the case of Blair and Brown being (hopefully) an extreme example. The control games at the top and even policy formation now often have little connection with the wishes of the parties’ grassroots membership or even the electorate at large. It’s no wonder that voters are disillusioned and party membership numbers have plummeted even in the last decade. Charles Moore wrote about this at length, again in the Telegraph on the day that the McBride story broke:
‘In the case of both Tory and Labour, [the modern consumer-citizen] will see that the central control of the party, in a culture when other leadership structures have flattened out, is more top-down than ever before. Those early 20th-century party conferences may have taken place in an age of deference, but they were genuinely run by the members, not by the leaders. In the Labour Party, the National Executive ruled. In the Conservative case, the leader attended only by the invitation of the National Union and appeared solely to make a speech on the last day. He was not supposed to manipulate its deliberations.
‘Tony Blair and David Cameron both noticed that their party activists were becoming more and more detached from the wider population, but they responded in the wrong way. Instead of finding means of widening and growing their memberships, they decided to attack the residue. Nowadays, the big party leaderships are not the authentic expressions of the wishes of hundreds of thousands of supporters. They are more like coups in banana republics, in which a small band of ambitious people storms the main public buildings and starts playing martial music on the state radio.’
It’s not just journalists and commentators who see the political structures as out of touch. A handful of MPs have been brave enough to challenge the system. Sarah Wollaston is a Conservative who was the first ever MP to be selected through an open primary. In a recent interview she raised a number of concerns over the way parliament is run:
‘There’s no training at all to be an MP.” Which, she quickly discovered, is why “professional politicians” who’d been special advisers and parliamentary researchers tend to get ahead. “Nobody needs to sit down and explain to them how it all works.”
‘”The thing that’s really valued here is loyalty, absolutely unquestionably loyalty,” she observes – but she can’t see why she can’t both support and criticise her leadership.
‘”I think government would be far better at all levels if actually there was more of an understanding that you are a better member of a team if you’re prepared to tell the team captain that he’s made the wrong decision. I come from a culture within the health service where debate and disagreement is welcomed; it’s seen as a good thing.
‘”Who am I to come in and start telling people that some things should change? I can see that argument. And yes, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. But I’m afraid the public do, kind of, think it’s a bit broke and I think if you come into here from outside, sometimes you notice the things that seem a bit odd.”
‘If Cameron has his way he won’t have any more MPs like Wollaston to deal with, for having promised to throw open the selection process to primaries all over the country, that plan has since been quietly shelved.
‘”Which is a shame. The whole point of this place is the executive tries to get its way. But that’s why I think people should demand more of them.”‘
Wollaston is willing to imagine a different form of parliamentary politics. When you learn about what Damian McBride was up to, it doesn’t take much effort to sympathise with her line of thinking. What could our parliament look like if politicians from all backgrounds looked to respect each other, where the focus was so much on good policy, rather than personal glory that the destructive infighting of the Labour government would be deemed so unnecessary and pathetic that such behaviour would not be tolerated?
When I hear reports that many Christians are preparing and training to become parliamentary candidates, I am excited. It’s not because I want Parliament to be dominated by Christians, but the expectation is that this would increase the number of MPs who come with a strong moral grounding, desiring to serve others beyond themselves. Watching the way the political parties’ Christian fellowships work together, you get a taste of what could be. They have their own distinct political flavours, which they are not afraid to stick to, but at the same time they are willing to support and encourage each other with a genuine mutual respect and friendship.
In the book of James it says this:
Two Kinds of Wisdom
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that our political system is broken, but it certainly isn’t functioning as well as it could be. Damian McBride is on a big publicity drive to sell his book, but he also says that he is trying to highlight the errors of the past in the hope that they will not be repeated in future. Maybe it is a sincere sign of contrition and acknowledgement of the damage he caused?
Whether he is being completely honest or not, there certainly are lessons to be learnt, but as long as the insecurities of those in power are manifested through the need to control and manipulate the system and others, we’re likely to see little change. Politics could and should be so much better. Ironically there is a good chance that those party leaders who attempt to tightly control things from the top would be much more likely to win favour with the electorate if they took a genuine interest in what goes on outside of their inner circles demonstrating a servant attitude towards those they are meant to serve rather than displaying an air of detachment and disinterest.
Is this too much to ask?