Here is an unusual angle on a grimly familiar story. The constituents of an MP who has been caught up in the expenses row are, in the phrase of the month, very, very angry. Their faith in politics and politicians has been shaken to the core. Yet the focus of the rage is not their MP, but the way he has been treated by his party and by the media.
The Government must have thought that sacking its member for North Norwich was one if its easier decisions. The mob of very, very angry voters were, according to the press and TV, baying for blood across the country. Dr Ian Gibson had, since being elected, proved to be a cussedly independent and uncompromising backbencher. When he was found to have allowed his daughter to live in a flat on which he claimed allowances, and then to have sold it to her very cheaply, he was summoned before the Labour Party’s impromptu disciplinary committee and, in short order, told that he would not be standing at the next election.
It was a “kangaroo court and over in 25 minutes,” Austin Mitchell, another Labour MP, has reported. “It simply refused to listen to him.”
The local, public reaction to these events has been the exact opposite of what one might expect. Norfolk is not natural Labour territory, and Gibson is on the left of the party, but he has always been his own man, and independence of mind is highly valued in East Anglia. There is real sorrow and anger, extending across party lines, that a conscientious and passionately committed MP has been declared a Labour non-person in the most shadowy of circumstances.
We shall presumably never be told what it was about Gibson’s case which was deemed more serious than the various flippers and tax evaders who were spared the kangaroo court, presumably on grounds of party loyalty. Nor will it be explained why local Labour figures were ignored by the party’s panel of moral judges.
In this case, the true source of public anger is not the behaviour, whether caused by greed or misjudgement, of an MP. Few in Norfolk have muttered the moronic mantra of the moment that politicians are as bad as each other. On the whole, they rather approve of the politician who represents them, even though they disagree, as I do, with many of his views. They regret what he has done but feel that, on balance, he should be give the chance to explain himself and to face the electorate.
On the other hand, there is genuine rage that faceless technocrats down in Westminster can end the career of a politician who happens not to have conformed to the dead-eyed control-freak faction of the Labour Party. It is that cynical way of dealing with dissidents which makes people feel alienated from the political process. Behind this high-handed treatment of individual MPs, they sense a sort of contempt for those, particularly in rural areas, that support them.
The court of public opinion has had some bad publicity of late. It has often seemed vengeful, sanctimonious and unthinking. On this occasion, though, the attitude of voters is entirely right. In an age of conformity and political timidity, the politicians who have the courage to stand up against the party machines are more important than ever.
It is reassuring that the public, at least in this part of the country, appreciates that spirit of independence, and ominous that Westminster does not.
You can’t blame everything on fatties
It is always good to have a section of the community to blame for society’s more intractable problems. Once it was smokers who, thanks to their irresponsible behaviour, were obliged to carry this burden of guilt; now it is the overweight.
According to Sir Jonathan Porritt of the Sustainable Development Commission, every fat person causes an impressive one ton cloud of carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere every year. The obese eat meat, and cattle emit enough methane to account for 20 per cent of all greenhouse gases. More cars are driven by the overweight. Fat, he says, is a climate change issue.
Surely Porritt could have pushed his argument a little further. What about methane emitted by the fatties themselves? That must be above average. When they walk down the street – which is not often, according to Sir Jonathan – they wear down more leather on their shoes than normally shaped people. They need more water in their baths, cause more broken seats to be repaired. When they lumber onto an aeroplane, more fuel has to be used.
It is difficult to see what good these smug emissions of generalised guilt actually do – beyond making beautifully streamlined folk like Sir Jonathan Porritt feel much better about themselves.
Bodyline batting is hardly cricket
Warming up for the ICC World Twenty 20 competition, which starts today, the England batsman, Kevin Pietersen, has hospitalised Reece Topley a 15-year-old schoolboy who had been bowling at him.
A medium-paced ball from Reece was returned with interest by Pietersen with a powerful drive which struck the bowler on the side of the head.
It has been asked whether a boy of that age should really be exposed to this kind of risk.
A more urgent question, surely, is what on earth England’s leading cricketers are doing preparing for the Ashes series by playing against schoolchildren.