Never mind Starmer, Johnson or any other besuited blaguers. This line from Ceri Williams, in the informal, ‘thank you and good night’ speech at the end of an unofficial fringe meeting, was, in my opinion the most important utterance of this year’s entire political conference season.
It’s like when you go to Spain with the phrase book. He was okay to … order the coffee but when they asked him, did he want tea – oh my god. Because he didn’t understand the language.[context and video of the speech below]
In the UK, political parties negotiate a manifesto – in effect, a shop window – that presents their core policies to the world. How it’s negotiated and by whom differs from party to party, but it’s the manifesto – or at least the publicly amplified gist of the manifesto, that allows people (and politicians) to consider which party they want to support/be a part of. All politicians need to do is familiarise themselves with the main points of their current manifesto and they would always be capable of coming up with at least a basically coherent reply to questions about all their party’s policies.
That’s the theory.
One of the many reasons Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership years scared the pants off the establishment was that he was working towards a situation where everyone would get an opportunity to contribute to the Labour Party manifesto, and Labour MPs would work according to that manifesto. He didn’t get anywhere near that in reality – but the prospect of it terrified them.
What really happens
Politicians follow their noses – they scent what the leader of their party wants, what their most lucrative donors want, what the media want on any given day, and try to sound ‘on the button’. This is why journalists and reporters can have lots of fun when they want to knock down a particular politician by seeking a currently contentious issue, and trying to think of a question their victims may not yet have been rehearsed to answer.
That tactic didn’t work on Jeremy Corbyn (until after Starmer’s Brexit stitch-up prevented him speaking plainly) because like most honest people, he’s not afraid of saying ‘what do you mean?’ or ‘I don’t know’. My all time favourite was when a reporter asked him ‘are you a Marxist’ and he replied, ‘I don’t know – I haven’t read everything Marx wrote. Have you?’ [Interpretation: do you know, or care, what being a Marxist might mean? Shall we have a real conversation? About why you are asking me that question?]
Another one I liked was when he was asked if he knew what the women’s campaign was about. He said, ‘I’ll ask my friend Linda Bellos.’ [Interpretation: don’t be afraid to talk to people with a range of views, even ones who are currently contentious. That’s how you learn.]
They’re all the same
Other than the occasional honest broker who slips through the net as Corbyn did, most politicians spend their time ducking, dodging and blaguing, trying to interpret every question they’re asked according to the requirements of the day. It’s why people say ‘they’re all the same’, it’s why politicians generally are neither useful nor valuable – and it’s the clue, for anyone who wants to really look into it, that should lead you to the conclusion that politicians are not especially powerful.
They are servants – but of what? Of whom? If we are to save any of the things that we really care about, that’s the question to answer, and we need to take the fight to the people who really hold the power.
The reason Ceri Williams’ comment about phrase books is so significant is that it flags up exactly how and why politicians get caught out. Rather than sitting shouting at the telly when they talk uninformed ‘phrase book’ politics, we need to switch off the telly, leave the newspaper in the shop, and choose between actively educating our own MPs on what matters to us, and pushing them towards real debate, or going round them and solving our problems by creating and building movements ourselves.
[Context: Ceri is talking about the violence and threats to a meeting two years ago which provided witnesses to what women have been putting up with in our communities … ‘as women and men who are arguing to retain our existing rights in law,’ because for years now, politicians have not seen fit to get their heads round this highly relevant and very contentious issue]
” … and it’s that silencing that has led Keir to look such a twit when he was asked a question. We can help you Keir. We can help you not make an idiot of yourself. We’ve asked you all week ‘don’t be a Davey’ because Marr made Davey look an absolute idiot about ‘adult human female’, that that’s a bad thing to say and [Starmer] had been no doubt briefed to answer that question possibly a little bit better, but that didn’t [happen]. He [Marr] said ‘is it transphobic to say that only women have a cervix’ and he’d not practised the script because …. we have asked for a meeting for two years now. We’ve offered him half an hour we think we could in half and hour explain how he could start thinking about the conflict of rights and talking about it in a respectful and helpful way so we can move forward about it in the Labour party. …”
The basic lack of knowledge in this particular case is that the politicians queuing up to die on the hill of that question didn’t realise it was a question about female people.