This is our truth, tell us yours
This isn’t intended to be a post on the furore around the death of Elliott Johnson, although I suspect some people will see it that way. When I saw Elliott’s picture, from facebook, I saw not a future politician, but a child actor auditioning for a part in a remake of Bugsy Malone.
I first thought about writing this post when I was struck by the reaction to Mhairi Black’s first parliamentary endeavours, when I wondered about the impact on a young person of being in parliament. It’s not a new question of course; William Hague’s life has been shaped and defined by his first conference appearance a a young man. I had to review, in turn, what I know about politics, about people, and about how young people are treated by political parties.
Let me start with an anecdote, from a time before I felt a duty to behave ethically, and to speak the truth to those I encountered. Bruce (not his real name) wanted to be a politician. We met at university, in the period before I became a parent. I mainly wanted to be in bed with as many young women as possible, and to seduce as many straight men into bisexuality as could be fitted in between my studies and extra-curricular activities. I suspect Bruce recognized my inner narcissist as much as he recognised mine. Either way, we became firm friends and our lives intersected on a regular basis.
Bruce wasn’t the only would be politician I knew. They were easy to spot, and I bumped into them in the usual places; bars, debates, political meetings, committees, and the office where I did some welfare work for the students union. Oddly, or perhaps not, I did precious little of my shagging around with that group; they were too focussed, too status driven, too aware of where they wanted to be in ten or twenty years time. The key line in any conversation was the point where they dropped in the first name of a front bencher they happened to have met at a conference or weekend school, and everyone else was expected to play party hack top trumps with their front bencher anecdotes, or sit and watch them bask in the reflected glory of their knowing such a person.
Bruce was as able as any of that group, and genuinely thoughtful. He also had a Ph D quality brain. When he came to me, and told me he’d messed up, and needed advice as a friend, I was surprised. Broadly speaking, he’d formed an attachment to a girl from the same group, who wasn’t of his party, but was very attractive (she was, too, apart from her politics and her personality). She’d asked Bruce, during a semi drunken conversation, if he really fancied her, and if he did, what he’d like to do to her. His answer, that he’d like to tie her up, beat her and bugger her, sounded to me like a juvenile attempt to say the dirtiest thing he could to impress a sophisticated woman. Sober, and spurned, he wanted me to tell him what to do.
I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see what his problem was. Of course, his problem was that gossip about his presumed proclivities would harm his political career. Almost in tears in the backroom of a pub, he confessed that he was scared that if gossip started, a future selection committee might ask him about sex, and relationships, or cause him to reveal his two informal police cautions for ‘just happening’ to be around public conveniences at times the police regarded suspicious. If I suspected he’d been caught in the act of cottaging, but only cautioned because of his youth or good character, I said nothing.
I pointed him at a counselling service, and felt deeply hearsick. He was 19, mixed up, and had so much invested in the idea of becoming a future politician that he couldn’t even unravel the tangled mess of his sexuality because he wanted a political career so badly. The whole thing was a febrile storm in a teacup magnified beyond belief by the political ambitions and introverted relationships of a small clique of ambitious men and women. I didn’t tell him that, because I feared he would reject any advice I offered. Similarly, I didn’t tell him I thought he was at high risk of making similar and worse mistakes in the future. I left that to the counselling service, even though I wasn’t sure he’d take up the offer, and I never asked if he did.
Years later, I was at some significant times and places in Bruce’s life; his Ph D celebrations, and his marriage to a woman some years younger than him. I missed the first steps on his political career, since I would have been somewhat out of place amongst his colleagues. I also missed out on the crashing denouement to the whole story, which came to an end when he was convicted of a serious sexual offence. He asked me if I knew a good lawyer who could organize his appeal, but, in truth, it was hopeless. His wife, his silly, giddy, naive and equally ambitious wife who believed he was a future cabinet minister, stood by him.
Bruce is one anecdote. There are others, from that time, of people who wanted to be admitted to the inner circles, and the prices they were willing to pay for an entry ticket. I didn’t like the people involved as much as I liked Bruce, and that’s why his story stays with me as a cautionary tale.
It’s freshers week again. More young hopefuls are signing up to political groups who, in years gone by, would use the language of providing experiences that groom young people for a future life in politics. I think it’s time to stop the grooming, to stop feeding the narcissism and the ambition, and to encourage young people once again to try to do, not be. If I were one of the Labour Party people responsible for its student wing I’d tell them to say to every new, naive supporter that progressive politics is not learned by listening to someone’s PPS tell you about the stepping stones and faces he trod on to get where he (or occasionally she) is today, but by going out and working in your local food bank, your local law centre, the local street kitchen for the homeless and by reporting back on the problems, and the solutions required.
Such an approach wouldn’t have helped Bruce, I fear, but at least one political party would be trying to stop the problem of young people being shoehorned into political roles and political infighting too soon.
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