Sunday, January 12, 2014

Greasy Pole: Catching The Eye (2014)

The Greasy Pole Column from the January 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

How many compulsive viewers of Prime Minister's Questions have noticed that there is one MP who is always firmly in the same seat behind David Cameron (perhaps he gets there early to reserve it) and does not take part in the racket of bellows and sneers which signal that the Honourable Members are representing their constituents? Then after each question, before the Prime Minister has had time even to consult the 'briefing' which is painstakingly composed to tell him how to respond to, or avoid, each question, this Member gets to his feet and stays there until the next one is asked when he again stands up, then sits down ...until PMQs comes to an end. The procedure for this event is that backbenchers who have missed out in the ballot to ask a question may try for a supplementary by standing to 'catch the eye' of the Speaker. Is this what motivates this Member? Or are his trousers too tight? Does he suffer from cramp? Is he trying to get a clearer view of Balls and Miliband?

The Conservative Party Member of Parliament for South West Bedfordshire is Andrew Edmund Armstrong Selous, who went to Eton (although his response to a Guardian survey of his educational background was that he would 'prefer not to reveal' that detail) then Oxford for a degree in Industry and Trade so that he was ready to become a director of the family firm and an insurance underwriter. From that it was almost natural to try for a place in Parliament but first Selous had to prove himself at an unconquerable Labour seat such as Sunderland North where in 1997 his vote was 6,370 while the Labour incumbent got 26,067. In 2001 he won South West Bedfordshire; his majority was a mere 776 but those were hard times for the Tories, with Tony Blair and his street-corner grin and verbiage seemingly threatening us with Labour rule into the foreseeable future.

In opposition Selous spent some time as a Whip until in 2006 he connected himself to a wider horizon as Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions and then, when Cameron ushered in his rag-bag of a Coalition, a 'proper' job nearer the sharp end of power as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Iain Duncan Smith. That was when IDS had been transmogrified into a kind of crusader against the scourge of poverty with an ambition to re-adjust the entire 'benefits' system so as to present it as a lasting remedy to that granitic problem. In tune with this fantasy Selous burrowed into local organisations such as the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the South Bedfordshire Community Family Trust, Leighton Buzzard Parkinson's Disease Society. He is reported to have 'taken part' – although exactly what this demanded of him is not clear – in annual sponsored sleep-outs to publicise the fact that there are some people who are too poor to have somewhere to sleep. For one such charity – Watford New Hope – he did not sleep out but did some time in the dry and warmth of their workshop where wood and furniture are re-cycled.

Whatever motive may have driven Selous in his persistent efforts to catch the Speaker's eye it cannot have been an urge to give to the Commons a usefully critical view of what property society does to its people. A typical example of his stifling attitudes is that he supported the British attack on Iraq on the inadequate, quickly discredited, argument that Blair's old friend and Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had '. . . clearly advised the Government that the military campaign in Iraq is clearly legal'. He is listed as being strongly supportive of the replacement for the mass-destroyer Trident submarine (one of which is said to be able to kill and lay waste on the scale of the entire bomb loads dropped in the last war). In calmer waters he opposes equal rights for gay people and was against the ban on hunting. In June he spoke up for the Royal Bank of Scotland, so recently a prime example of the profit motive rampant. Selous now thinks that the RBS '...has gone from a bad bank under the last government to a normal bank now and it has actually made a profit of over £800 million in the first three months of this year'. What he did not say was that this bank, as part of being 'normal', is now planning to re-commence paying dividends but also imposing a fresh programme of 'savings' which will entail the sacking of thousands of employees who will thus be forced to face some of the most demanding aspects of their reliance on surviving through the sale of their labour power – and therefore on IDS and what may remain of his ministry's 'benefits'.

Lean English
If Selous was looking for a blast of national publicity to help his career it recently arrived, although in an unintended way. And when it did it illustrated that there are limits to his charitable urges. In June George Osborne held forth to the Commons on the potentially rich theme of immigrants who are also benefit claimants, saying that it was a 'reasonable requirement that anyone on benefits would have a basic grasp of English... From now on, if claimants don't speak English, they will have to attend language courses until they do'. Selous was quick join in this but his contribution was deficient in one crucial respect. He tweeted that he would '...strongly support the loss of benefits unless claimants lean English'. The mis-spelling was greeted by a flood of derisive responses, typical of which was 'Were did you lean to rite so good?' which compelled a panicky Selous to delete the tweet. The episode served to emphasise the assessment of him by under The Worst MP On Twitter that his stuff is 'meaningless, regurgitated of the highest real engagement with constituents...never actually speaks to them...' If Selous does ever succeed in catching the Speaker's eye it is very unlikely that he will grasp the opportunity to offer anything original or penetrative. It would be in his interests if, when the other Members are in full cry, he were to duck down behind the seats in the Commons rather than expose himself.