Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
It could have been rather galling. I would have a good conversation on the doorstep in my constituency of Bristol North West with a constituent who had pledged energetically to vote Conservative – and perhaps even have a poster in their garden come election time. We would have discussed the folly of Labour’s spending plans and other such dangers of the Left. Then as I would turn to head back down the garden path, they would say, “Ah, Tony Benn. Now there’s a great man – makes Bristol proud. We need more like him.”
The fact that my constituent disagreed fundamentally with almost everything that the socialist Benn believed was of little consequence. For many a Conservative voter in my seat, if we had more politicians like the him, Parliament and the country would be a better place.
One of the hardest things for many people going into politics who want to do good (as, in fact, most do), is to be heartily disliked by approximately half the population who are of a different political persuasion. I still get very uncomfortable at that point in a conversation when a potential new friend finds out what I do for a living, then asks that crucial question: “Which party are you from?”. In answering, you know you have an over one-in-three chance of the conversation drying up instantly, that polite tight-mouthed look come over their face, and previously amicable chat turn to sawdust in your mouth. That’s on a personal level.
On a political one, politicians don’t like being disliked because it means they won’t get votes, and that means they won’t get power. And here’s where politics today can learn a lot from Tony Benn. I have always told myself that if you believe in something, it is impossible for everyone to agree with you. However, it is possible to conduct yourself in those beliefs so that you can aspire for everyone to respect you.
Benn said (now rather famously) that he was a man who ‘believed what he said, and said what he believed’. The public many be wrong in their perception, but many would not ascribe that attribute to politics today.
But was it easier for Benn than for politicians today? He was of an era where Left and Right were very defined, and the Labour Party had a far more intuitively-understood identity. After Tony Blair more or less invented the modern intepretation of “the centre ground” and ran into it with a red flag, politicians of all colours have been desperately trying to occupy that muddy space with flags of their own, whilst also trying to distinguish themselves from the scrum trampling the same space.
As Ed Milliband fast returns to “good old fashioned socialism”, the divide may be re-opening, but the fact remains that running all over the this so-called “centre ground” (although few actually stop to ask what it is relatively “centre” to…) has made political parties very confused, and the public even more so. We have Red Tories, Blue Labour, Orange Lib Dems… and, perhaps as a result, many (hopefully mistakenly) predict that mucky coalitions of a smudge of political colours are becoming more likely, because no one party label actually reflects a majority of the people, and how they think of themselves. What on earth is going on?
One of the problems is that in trying to resolve this identity crisis, the political establishment always looks at labels and templates of things past. Yes, history is vital to understanding our present and our future, but history itself teaches that history is not a butterfly print – you can’t transfer the patterns of the past directly to the future. (Though history also teaches that everyone usually thinks you can.) The future may follow patterns of the past, but it always manifests itself differently. So in trying the resolve the identity crisis, politics can only think in Blue, Yellow and Red, and tries to fit any new reality into the strait-jacket of these artificial labels.
As an MP in a very mixed, marginal seat, with perhaps “a little bit of everything” politically, these labels seem ill-fitting to the reality of people’s differences in how they think of the world. I frequently say that the real divide seems to be to be best articulated like this – and will repeat a favourite Churchill quote.
“United wishes and good will cannot overcome brute fact”. The reality as it seems to me is that there are those who agree with this statement (most Conservatives, many “old” Labour self-defining working class, and some Lib Dems.) Then there are those who believe, ( I would say wrongly, but they would argue their case) that an ideology-driven quest for a perfect society( even if never achieved in the entire history of mankind) is the way to lift it up to a better place.”
Maybe this is why politics in general strikes so many people as so artificial. The current political divides do not reflect the reality of the public’s difference of opinion. You can only be authentic if (to use a less highbrow quote) “you say what you see, and if you see it, say it”.
Yes, maybe this is a slightly disruptive thought. No, I don’t know how it plays out in practice. But as we see the departure of one man who said what he believed, however mistaken it might be, it doesn’t seem a bad time to suggest something that to many, who are not sufficiently politically obsessed to be reading this blog, might be a glaring reality.