By Aisha Sembhi
The environment of the House of Commons has always been intimidating. It is a frustrating environment, one in which MPs are expected to deliver impassioned testimonies in favour of their constituents and personal ideological beliefs and be at peace with the potential that a colleague will obliterate everything they have prepared for that day. It is more than enough to put someone off a career in politics for life, contributing to the overwhelming aura of exclusivity associated with breaking into policy. For this reason alone, it is something worth exploring.
Finally, the topic of Parliamentary civility and Commons etiquette has been subject to some sort of mainstream debate — but for all the wrong reasons. Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner has come under fire for calling Conservative MP Christopher Clarkson “scum” during a Commons debate on imposing Tier 3 Covid-19 restrictions on Greater Manchester. Over 100 Conservative backbenchers have since signed a letter addressed to Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, calling for a public apology for Rayner’s “unparliamentary behaviour”.
The truth is, Parliament, particularly the Commons, has never been a place for politeness. It is a surprise more politicians do not slip up as often as I would expect. Admittedly, it would be inaccurate to describe Rayner’s comment as entirely appropriate for any workplace. But it was a product of rightful frustration. We have successfully made a spectacle out of our legislative procedure solely through the way we present Parliamentary discourse to the public. Hostility between individual MPs is nothing new, and to sensationalise such an occurrence is simply a deflection from the seemingly endless list of government-headed shortcomings. This scandal goes further, transcending the discourse regarding Commons behaviour and instead turning public.
Clarkson, alongside several fellow Tory MPs, has asserted his belief that Rayner’s comment has resulted in a wave of abuse to both his office and family, including death threats. Whilst, of course, provocation of external abuse is wholly unacceptable, one must beg the question; is this outrage limited only to fellow Tory MPs? The Conservative’s sudden interest in the wellbeing of MPs after decades of silence despite witnessing their colleague’s trauma is incredibly telling. It is difficult to forget the public testimonials of Labour MPs throughout the last Parliaments, detailing the emotional suffering faced as a result of external abuse.
Considering this, plus the sensible assumption that Rayner’s comment was a product of short-term frustration and was not intended with malice, it is feasible to conclude that the Conservative decision to sensationalise the scandal on a public platform is nothing more than political point scoring.
Tensions between the two leading parties is as high as it has ever been. The usual narrative of a longing for bipartisanship and cooperation is defunct. It is no surprise that the governing party, shambolic in its handling of the current crises it faces, is desperate to deflect negative attention to its opponents. Politics has never been civil, and it is incredibly frustrating to watch the governing party manipulate rightful anger at its blatant disregard for working-class areas into a debate on whether or not the opposition is allowed to express frustrations at this consistent and unnecessary defence of the ruling class.
The Conservative Party is desperate to paint itself as the institution of the rational, and Labour as unnecessarily aggressive and a champion of partisanship. Its decision to turn Rayner’s remark into a national scandal by hyperbolising the severity of an off-hand comment is a distasteful and divisive political choice, and it is an incredible shame that it is working in every way they had hoped it would.
Image: by Jorge Láscar via Flickr