House of Commons

The House of Commons an Antropology of MPs at Work_

House of Commons: An Anthropology of MPs at Work

The idea of a study of the nature of MPs in their own habitat could have been dreamt up from Spitting Image in the early nineties, with David Bellamy getting in close to the slugs, the sheep and the grey leader in white underpants. But anthropologist Emma Crewe respects MPs as humans and goes into the House of Commons at a fascinating time, before the 2015 election, with regard at party politics and Members of Parliament at a modern time low.

A week is a long-time in politics, and already in a few months since publication party politics has taken a new turn. The Labour Party has become a mass membership party again after an election of a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who packed out halls around the country in his campaign, re-energizing politics by speaking up against an ideological austerity agenda when many in his party, particularly the parliamentary party, had lost either the political will or lacked the intelligence to articulate an alternative. And interestingly Emma Crewe interviewed the backbench Corbyn, giving the book an unexpected element of topicality.

More people have joined or rejoined The Labour Party since the General Election than are members of their entire Conservative Party and for those who have joined or rejoined while not agreeing with everything Corbyn says will be heartened to read that even before being elected to his new office he was espousing the ideal of a pluralist, inclusive party: the new politics he now offers in a party where since the turn of the century the uninspiring and talentless have climbed the ranks, clothing themselves as “moderates”.

The book captures that trend of the rise of the bland, where progression seems only possible to those blindingly loyal to those in charge or for those with such a build-up of support their reward is politicking. But it means promotion from MPs comes from a small pool with real principles often left at the door as the greasy climbers look to slowly tear up the House of Commons in their brand new shoes.

But these observations in the book are subtle and are there between the lines, the stats and the quotes. Emma Crewe takes a largely empathetic view to MPs in a cynical, a-political time; for all the SpAds, old school boys and governors who see being a member of parliament as the next step in a comfortable career path that delivers a portion of patronage before the prospect of lucrative offers of consultancy, there are still a number who have got into party politics for the right reasons and are stretched in a role that requires a combination of project management skills and political intellect.

Stella Creasy is one MP the author mentions as someone who has fought tirelessly on campaigns to the better the life for others, while still working for her constituents and using the media to good effect. The media itself is touched on fleetingly but never goes near the subject of phone-hacking, which was a key milestone issue of the last parliament along with the national riots; there are constant mentions for social media (and even indents of tweets, something The Secret Footballer tried in his third book) while Emma Crewe notes of the cosy relationships between male MPs and male journalists, as well as how most public utterances from MPs aren’t of substance, but part of a longer game in smearing enemies and self-promotion.

The book gives an excellent example of this showing how a popular right-wing blogger, who is now given credence as a guest on Newsnight panels, constantly takes quotes out of context to paint a misleading picture of left-wing opponents. But then again just last week the Prime Minister did the same at the Conservative Party Conference, willfully misquoting Corbyn to wild applause, painting a picture that fits the media portrayal which the new Labour leader’s enemies from all sides are happy to peddle.

There are some nice reflections on some of the past great moments in the Commons, including Geoffrey Howe’s electric speech where the gasps were audible on the live TV broadcast, when cameras were still a fresh novelty in the Commons. That speech effectively brought down Thatcher, and the book shows the contrast of power the job can sometimes bring compared to the more mundane, including the constituency casework which seems to exist because of a shortfall in the safety net the state provides. Perhaps an irony for those MPs that want to shrink the state further except when they are claiming expenses for their moat or buying subsidised drinks at the Commons bar.

The writing takes a conversational tone at times with the author occasionally sharing her view, as on Tony Blair’s personality. And the book itself explores the creatures in the lower house with a mix of first-hand experience, interviews, anecdotes and a recollection of history. It still has the feel of a text book that would be handy for politics students, with graphs, tables and footnotes a plenty but also, as an anthropology, it touches on several aspects of human behaviour that is prevalent in many competitive environments and workplaces.

Emma Crewe concludes the Commons is given a rough ride. But the devil is in the detail and through the cracks in the passages the book reveals an archaic establishment, out of touch with the electorate. The ex-chief whip nicknamed Thrasher could be a character from Tales of the Unexpected generations ago, while several inhabitants revel in boorish behaviour that has led to house that doesn’t represent the population and consequently has an effect on policy, as Crewe shows as she follows how some bills are dealt with.

The author is entirely right defending the principle of Parliament and praising its many positives. But until there is reform in the House of Commons it is vulnerable to antipathy. And there are many, include some in the House, whom are happy to create an environment where the masses are largely apathetic towards politics.


Mel Gomes is the author of Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley, an e-book mixing the combination of travel, and sport, where money challenged glory as the aspiration in football.

It is available to preview for free and download in full from Amazon and Smashwords. More details, including photos and links to reviews, here.

Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley

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