New MPs’ speech tell the future of politics - GulfToday

New MPs’ speeches tell the future of politics

John Rentoul


Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

New MPs’ speech tell the future of politics

British parliamentarians seen inside the building.

Many new Conservative MPs are different from the traditional Tory stereotype, while many of the (fewer) new Labour MPs are carbon-copy Corbynites. After every election, I try to listen to or read as many MPs’ first speeches as I can, to see if I can spot the high risers and to assess the character and policy interests of the new intake.

The first thing that surprises me is that they are still called “maiden” speeches. I thought that would have gone by now, but on the contrary, the term has become more embedded. Instead of simply calling a new member to speak, expecting other MPs to know it is their first time and to observe the courtesies (not interrupting, basically), the speaker and his deputies now say: “It is a great pleasure to call X to make her maiden speech.”

Funny how some conventions are respected and others not. The house’s guide for new MPs says that first speeches should not be “politically contentious”, but most of them are and have been since at least the 1980s. Labour MPs in particular condemn the party to which their party just lost. One of them, Zarah Sultana, the new MP for Coventry South, hit the headlines by attacking not just the current Tory government and the one before it, but the Labour one in between, as “40 years of Thatcherism”.

The more interesting convention, almost always followed, is that the new MP should pay tribute to their predecessor. Mark Fletcher, the Conservative MP who won Bolsover from Labour, did not just call Dennis Skinner “a giant of British politics” — he proposed that a statue should be built in his honour. In other cases, the tribute was more awkward. Kate Griffiths, the new Tory MP for Burton, did not mention her immediate predecessor, her estranged former husband Andrew Griffiths. “I pay tribute to one of my most admirable predecessors, Sir Ivan Lawrence,” she said. Sir Ivan lost the seat in 1997.

One new MP managed to breach both conventions at once, by insulting her predecessor in a partisan attack. Amy Callaghan, the Scottish National Party MP who unseated Jo Swinson, the former Lib Dem leader, said: “It is my promise that I shall fight tooth and nail at every turn to ensure that the people of East Dunbartonshire, and indeed the people of Scotland, never feel left behind or ignored by their representative again.”

Another thing new MPs are expected to do is to describe their constituency, which is generally pretty dull, although occasional facts shine out like glints of gold in the mud. “We manufacture a fifth of the world’s gin in Warrington North,” said Charlotte Nichols, the constituency’s new Labour MP.

But it is when new MPs describe themselves that their speeches can be revelatory. Stuart Anderson, the new Conservative MP for Wolverhampton SW, told how he was brought up by his mother after his father, an SAS soldier, was killed when he was eight. “I went to what was probably the worst school in the area.”

He left at the age of 16 with no qualifications and signed up to be a soldier. “I was still only 17 when I was shot in a training accident, tragically by a friend with a faulty weapon.” Although his foot was saved and he returned to active service in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo, he struggled with alcohol, depression and suicidal thoughts. “In my mind, my life was over,” he said. “I had been dealt a bad hand, and that was my life.

I thought I would try to do something good for my kids. I never wanted anyone to have to experience my life, let alone my children, so I decided to take them to church. There are many reasons why people come out of despair. When I was trying to do something right by my family, I found faith.” His life changed and he decided to go into politics, never having voted before 2015.  

I have been on operations and stood alongside my colleagues, some of whom are no longer here because of decisions I attributed to this house. This was never my first option, but I was faced with a choice: I could moan about these decisions, I could ignore them, or I could try to make a difference. I chose the latter, and history will decide if I achieve this.

Few first speeches achieve that level of emotional power, although Kieran Mullan, the new Tory MP for Crewe and Nantwich, also delivered a remarkable one. He told how, as a junior hospital doctor, he looked after a Polish man of quiet dignity towards the end of his life.

We would sometimes talk in the evenings, and he told me of his worry that without children of his own, his life would not be as vividly remembered as it deserved to be. I know, as a gay man, that the question of whether I would have children and how I would be remembered sometimes crossed my mind at the time, so I felt an affinity with him.

Mullan decided to write the story of Jan Krasnodebski’s life, and quoted him in his speech:  You can have a happy fulfilled life as long as you do something that you think is important. Mullan’s conclusion was philosophical without being party political: People want meaning and a sense of where they belong. Too often, we forget that that comes in the form of expectations and obligations on us. Delivering on what we must give to others and what is expected of us helps to create our own sense of worth.

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