The everyday shape-shifting representation in the work of MPs

Posted on January 4th, 2017 by Emma Crewe

In the Crick Centre’s first blog of 2017, Professor Emma Crewe considers the role of MPs in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder.

In memory of Jo Cox

Murdered MP Jo Cox’s husband is politicising her death. So it has been said. If the way he expresses his grief is political, then so are the comments of his detractors who are either knowingly or unknowingly misunderstanding the nature of political work. To condemn him for responding to his late wife’s murder with narratives of hope is not just cruel. It smashes through the entanglement of political and personal. It’s like condemning a writer’s widower for saying, “she will live on in her novels” or a soldier’s widower for claiming, “she did not die in vain”; most would surely respect the emotion of these claims? The emotion is love for the person as an individual entwined with admiration for their work. For novelists, soldiers and politicians their work is part of who they are.

So what was Jo Cox’s work? Like all MPs she would have made choices each day about which activity to prioritise – advising constituents about housing and other issues, listening to lobby groups articulating a viewpoint, canvassing for the party, answering journalists’ questions or the 1000s of emails/tweets/letters or, when Parliament is sitting, attending debates and meetings, speaking and voting and reading stacks of legal, political and technical documents. As Andrew Percy (MP) tweeted in 2012, ‘The rock and roll MP lifestyle. One min it’s speaking in the Mother of Parliaments, next it’s a visit to a Chicken Cottage’. According to another MP: ‘It feels like Genghis Khan attaching four horses to your limbs and you are pulled in four directions.’ The more you listen, the more directions you will be yanked in.

The sensible MPs prioritise, develop expertise and form powerful alliances. With a few exceptions, MPs engage in this heady shape-shifting to respond to a multitude of audiences for a mix of personal and political reasons. The personal and political are entangled through the fuel of power, emotion and imagination. MPs crave power for the self-esteem it bestows but also to make things happen for others – their constituency, their party, their country, the beneficiaries of their causes. They want power to leave Europe, to fight racism or to reform the NHS. They want change because in their imagination they can reshape the world into a better place. Those around them share their images of new worlds, while their opponents threaten it.

However, the representation of 70,000 constituents’ interests as a collective is rarely possible. Constituents have diverging, even conflicting, interests and views and even knowing what they want would be a complex task. Inevitably some will feel, and be, ignored by their elected representative. If Jo Cox had known her murderer’s views, revealed by the Nazi memorabilia he kept in his flat, we would hope and assume she would have argued vehemently against them. He claimed he was assassinating the MP to keep Britain independent – no doubt in part provoked by the febrile atmosphere of a country polarised by the Brexit referendum (which took place only one week later) – and it was surely no coincidence she was anti-Brexit in her views. The point of Parliament is to provide a forum for disagreements to be aired without violence. As the judge said at her murderer’s trial, “By your actions you have betrayed the quintessence of our country, its adherence to parliamentary democracy.”

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Image credit: jocox.org.uk

Consider a more minor example of violence in the MP-constituent relationship but this time from South Asia. In May 2016 an MP in Bangladesh was accused of humiliating a Hindu head teacher for supposedly making comments against Islam. He forced the teacher to squat holding his ears with his hands, a punishment normally reserved for children, until he was so tired he fell to the floor. Some Islamic groups in the area supported the MP and demanded capital punishment for the teacher. But the story exploded on Facebook and Twitter, with 10,000s posting photos of themselves, holding their ears and saying “sorry sir” in solidarity with the teacher. Young people formed human chains across the country in protest and students showed their anger by holding their ears on campuses.

The challenges of representative democracy facing us in 2017 and beyond are highlighted starkly by such examples of physical violence. But this violence is only the everyday instance of conflict pushed to its extreme limits. The work of elected representatives is to listen, shape-shift and make practical judgements about what and who to prioritise. Our job as citizens is to engage, scrutinise and even demand, but to refrain from cruelty or violence even when we are overlooked or over-ruled.

Criticism of Brendan Cox for celebrating his wife’s work is politically motivated. Perhaps it is awkward for those who disagreed with her pro-European and pro-immigration politics that her murder is clear evidence of the dangers of extreme nationalism and that her courage was so manifest: as she died she shouted, “let him hurt me, not you” in the hope that they would run to safety. Political motivation is not in itself a problem, because there is nothing either intrinsically good or bad about politics (or politicians for that matter) in general, but it is hard to see any virtue in condemning a widower for remembering his late wife’s heroism. After the Brexit referendum and US election, in 2017 we will need fewer self-styled heroes and more selfless heroism to avoid acrimony turning into worse.

Author Bio

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Professor Emma Crewe is an anthropologist working on politics, governance and identity in civil society organisations and parliament in the UK, South Asia and East Africa based at SOAS, University of London. Her research into international development NGOs began in 1987 and into parliament goes back to the House of Lords in 1998-2002 and the House of Commons 2011-2013.

Notes: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog series please contact crick@sheffield.ac.uk

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