Cathy Newman: An unhealthy obsession with Westminster – it’s time for career politicians to make way for ordinary people

Cathy Newman: An unhealthy obsession with Westminster – it’s time for career politicians to make way for ordinary people
Kim Leadbeater, sister of Jo Cox, has put herself forward as Labour’s candidate in the forthcoming Batley and Spen by-election. Good news – for too long, MPs have lived and breathed politics from the moment they were out of nappies

Shakespeare, Yeats, Defoe, Woolf, Auden, Homer: the breadth of Denis Healey’s library was a testament to his life beyond politics. It was either the former chancellor or his wife Edna who came up with the concept of a political hinterland. He famously pronounced that Margaret Thatcher was a lesser politician for the absence of passions outside Westminster. And he might well have had a point.

If he was still alive today, I think he’d thoroughly approve of Kim Leadbeater’s decision to put herself forward as Labour’s candidate in the forthcoming Batley and Spen by-election. Announcing her move in the constituency represented by her sister Jo Cox, until her murder in June 2016, Leadbeater said she’d “never really seen myself as a political animal […] It wasn’t my world, it was Jo’s world.”

This is refreshing to hear. Because for too long, MPs seemed to have lived and breathed politics from the moment they were out of nappies.

But if Leadbeater succeeded in winning the Labour nomination, and then the by-election, she’d join a new breed of politicians with an array of interests, enthusiasms, and inspiring stories of battling adversity.

A self-employed fitness professional and former lecturer in physical activity and health, she’d enrich Westminster by being Kim Leadbeater first, the Honourable Member for Batley and Spen second.

Hinterland has been a dwindling asset for many years. House of Commons data suggests that, in 1979, whereas just 3.4 per cent of MPs listed their occupation prior to arriving in Westminster as “politician” or “political organiser”, by 2015 – the latest year analysed – that had soared to 17.1 per cent. But when the 2019 figures are analysed, it will be interesting to see if change is now afoot.

Boris Johnson made much of new Conservative MP Katherine Fletcher’s safari guide past, but while this was only a gap year job before she progressed to a more conventional professional life as a banker, her colleagues on all sides of the house have many tales to tell from the world outside Westminster.

Though only 27, Bishop Auckland’s first-ever Tory MP Dehenna Davison has experienced tragedy in her young life already, speaking in her maiden speech about the devastating death of her father, who was attacked in a pub when she was just 13.

Labour’s Florence Eshalomi, whose great-grandparents were slaves, was a carer for her mother, who suffered from sickle-cell anaemia and renal failure. The SNP’s Amy Callaghan has spoken of her teenage battle with skin cancer, which she says “ignited a fire in my belly” to protect the NHS.

These are just some of the life stories of a House of Commons which is the most diverse so far, in terms of gender, race and sexuality. The majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are women, for the first time, though fewer than 25 per cent of Conservatives are. Forty-five of the 650 MPs are openly gay.

Educational background is still less than representative of the country as a whole, though, with more than a quarter of MPs educated at independent schools. Only around 6.5 per cent of the population is privately educated. Bradford Grammar School boy Denis Healey would no doubt have something to say about that.

MPs often get a bad press, and some of them sometimes deserve it. But there are also extraordinary human beings in today’s Commons who have a hinterland Healey would have applauded. Leadbeater may not win the Labour candidacy – though she’d be a tough act to beat – and the by-election will be bitterly contested. But if she does succeed in travelling all the way to Westminster, her life’s journey will do her constituents proud. And the rest of us, too.

Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm

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