Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Many people are drawn to work in politics. Some dream of being an MP from the age of five years old; others are brilliantly minded in an area of policy; others still passionate about a cause that they work day in and day out to change others’ minds about. There are these kinds of people on all sides of politics: well-intentioned, passionate and focused on shaping policy for the better.
But then there is another type of politico. A crueller kind. People who aren’t too bothered with a cause or with change, but drawn to the idea of working in politics – befriending MPs, activists, civil servants and journalists, so that they can ‘be in the know’. Professional gossipers, if you will.
They had a field day last week – calling each other on the phone, messaging in whatsapp groups: ‘have you heard the news? Boris Johnson has had an affair! “You know who it was with, don’t you: I used to work with her.” And so the gossip carries on, until journalists can piece just enough together to make a young woman’s life hell for a week.
I don’t really know Carrie Symonds well; I met her briefly a couple of years ago, and follow her on Twitter. Like many people in Britain, I’m aware that politicians have sex lives, and I’d like to be spared the details. There are some who argue that this story was in the public interest, because Johnson could one day become Prime Minister. But was it really in the public interest for her name to be dragged through the mud, day after day in the newspapers?
You may say: ‘that’s just how politics is’. But does it have to be? Does politics have to be an industry that employs and rewards those who enjoy the thrill of a scandal, and are obsessed with showing off how much they are ‘in the know’, even if it means hurting someone?
I do think women are held to different standards in politics. We’re judged not only on what we do and say, but often also on our relationships (or lack thereof!, our hair, our weight, the clothes we wear, and so on. Men get judged on these things too sometimes, albeit less frequently. As I argued in my previous column, I think people should be judged based on what they say and do – not through the prism of gender.
But there isn’t just a problem with misogyny in politics. There is a wider lack of civility and courtesy in in general. Isabel Hardman’s new book called Why we get the wrong kind of politician (which I very much hope to take on my next holiday) has sparked a conversation about professional standards. I’m not quite sure there is a right or wrong kind of politician, or politico, but I think we could do with fewer professional gossipers.
I have always thought that politics should be about helping people. There are millions of families struggling with the cost of living and of housing right now. There are kids that are stabbing each other on the streets of cities, joining gangs and feeling hopeless about their futures. Two Russian agents have been charged with the murder of a British woman on British soil. There are problems that need solving.
So why do so many in Westminster insist on spending so much of their time talking amongst and about each other? With so many problems to solve – and arguments to be had about how to solve them – you’d think there would be a greater sense of urgency to focus efforts on policy.
The public deserve better than a bubble obsessed with itself. Western democracies across the world are facing a growing resentment towards the ‘establishment’, and one the reasons for this could be that the gossipy, nasty, duplicitous nature of the political community is putting off authentic and well-intentioned people from getting involved. I completely understand why Ruth Davidson would be put off moving into SW1 , and all of the personal drama that comes with it.
There are some amazing people who work in politics. And I feel lucky to have been able to meet a handful in my time campaigning for Brexit and now for a freer society with the Taxpayers’ Alliance. But I have noticed that there are some who seem to thrive on drama of affairs and scandals, on the unhappiness of others who are unlucky enough to be caught up in either, and on the idea of being ‘in the know’.
Perhaps gossip has always been, and always will be, an essential means to obtaining power and influence. Perhaps I have got things all wrong, and ought to accept the reality of how things are in Westminster. But if you’re a bit like me, and find the game-playing and gossip a little off-putting, then let’s try and steer conversations away from people and get back to the ideas that inspired us to get involved in politics in the first place.