The Greasy Pole column from the December 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
If that's what you want there is some Good News: in spite of his past, Nick Clegg now thinks that '...politics is not perfect'. But then the Bad News is he also thinks '...if you want to improve something, get stuck in and get your hands dirty'. These comments were a response to Jeremy Paxman when he recently hinted at some sympathy with Russell Brand over his disillusionment with politics and his refusal to join in what he sees as '...a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears'.
Whether Clegg can properly claim that during his time as Deputy Prime Minister he has actually 'improved' anything – other than perhaps the colour of his tie – is very much in dispute. Whether he himself is confident on the matter may be judged by the recent appointment, as his Director of Communications, of Emma Gilpin-Jacobs. Anyone responding 'Emma Gilpin-Who?' should be aware that during some twenty years she has acquired what one observer noted as a 'stellar' reputation in the rituals which lurk behind such arcana as 'Brand Communications', 'Corporate Reputations', 'Public Profiling...' If these activities caused her to get her hands dirty it will have been through working to reconcile those who are obsessively known as 'ordinary people' to their position on the scale of social poverty. Now she is committed to cleansing the blemished reputation of the LibDem Party– which will test the reward, after her spell as Global Communications Director at the Financial Times, of a place among the ranks of the Power Mums.
Another woman in Russell Brand's hokey cokey, of a similar age to Gilpin-Jacobs but with a record in a different sector of the 'communications' business is Esther McVey, Conservative MP for Wirral West. She made her name as a producer/presenter for Children's TV and programmes such as Nothing But The Truth, The Heaven And Earth Show. At another level there was also an appearance at the Liverpool Empire Theatre in The Vagina Monologues. And during 1999 a flood of publicity photographs – the work of an anonymous cameraman who remembered her as 'charm personified' – drawing attention to parts of her anatomy which are not usually considered essential for exposure on TV. A career change seemed to be advisable and in the 2005 election McVey, now robed more suitably for a constituency such as West Wirral, was narrowly beaten by Labour's Stephen Hesford but she did better in 2010, winning by 2436 votes. From the beginning she was, apart from those other matters, a subject of controversy; she had to pay Hesford￡6500 in damages and costs after her team had copied a blog about him going on a 'junket' test match tour in Australia and New Zealand. After a couple of early scrabbles up the Greasy Pole she got lucky in one of Cameron's re-shuffles, finding herself as Minister for Welfare at the Department of Work and Pensions under Iain Duncan Smith (IDS).
This was an intriguing combination. A long-standing rumour has it that in 2002, when he was in opposition, IDS was reduced to tears by what he saw of the ghastly decay in the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. So much so that he accepted an invitation to address Labour's 2005 conference and told the delegates that their treatment for poverty was inadequate because 'everyone should have enough money to live properly in their community' (he did not discuss how this applied to the Cameron family in their 'community' at Chipping Norton). But since then IDS has had to undergo a change of heart, as an important minister in a government devoted to imposing cuts which ensure that thousands of families have barely 'enough' of that money to get by.
One of the government's measures is the 'bedroom tax', so called because it is imposed on those living in social housing which has more rooms than they strictly need. This has led to many people having problems paying their rent; in a recent debate on the issue Labour MP Steve Pound told of his brother who is threatened with eviction because he has a 'spare' room which is used to accommodate his dialysis equipment. In October McVey was unwise enough to propose that the homes in question should be modified to reduce the number of rooms – a 'solution' which was greeted with a mixture of bewilderment and scorn.
Presumably because she is a practised TV operator, McVey was put up to defend the plans for Universal Credit, which IDS introduced to the 2010 Tory conference as a 'vital reform' which would simplify the benefits system and reduce its cost by merging six of the available benefits. The situation at present is that the measure is a hugely expensive chaos showing little prospect of changing anything let alone making it cheaper. The Commons Public Accounts Committee has said that much of the £425 million spent so far may have to be written off. McVey's 'defence' was little more than empty assurances that all was well with the scheme, which was working within the time scale as planned. It was not a convincing performance among the 'considerable challenges' facing the scheme – not to mention for those whose everyday life is so crucially dependent on those 'benefits' and how they are allowed to 'claim' them.
Jacobs and McVey each had a long and detailed training in their chosen sphere, followed by years of experience, which provided them with an opportunity to show how effective it had all been. In the event they have qualified for nothing more noteworthy than a place in that hokey-cokey where at the closing of a ballroom dance revellers are too far gone to continue with the rituals of waltz, quickstep...But as applied by Russell Brand the words could have some relevance for voters hesitating at the door of the polling booth. Which is not to argue that anyone with such insight should refuse to vote. To express our anger and contempt for those liars on that same ballot paper can be the start of something big.