The Socialist 10 March 2010 |
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Tower Block of Commons
The ivory tower of Westminster politics has seldom looked as far from the struggles of everyday life as it did in Channel 4's 'Tower House of Commons', where four MPs spent eight days living in Britain's most deprived council estates, displaying naivety, dismay, but most of all, a gaping chasm in terms of living standards.
The series, carefully edited to fit a 'fish-out-of-water' narrative, portrayed the politicians as out-of-touch and depressingly naive when plucked from the comfort of the Commons. It was a narrative the four seemed willing to fulfil as Shadow Children's Minister Tim Houghton struggled to organise a park kick-about in Birmingham, while his Tory colleague, Nadine Dorries, tried to convince 20-year-old unemployed drug addict, Jonathan, that he'd "get on well" with David Cameron.
The alarming depths of parliamentary naivety were found when 75-year-old Labour backbencher, Austin Mitchell, admitted to Selina, a 29-year-old former prostitute and recovering heroin addict, that he thought drug problems on estates were little more than 'folklore'.
Reality for millions
The show may have been seeking laughs, but nevertheless it revealed stark truths about the living conditions millions of people are forced to endure and the political disillusionment and desperation that follows.
In one of the more revealing scenes Mark Oaten, LibDem MP for Winchester, who spent his eight days in Dagenham, talks to a local man who says he used to vote Labour, but has now turned to the racist, far-right British National Party (BNP) because: "They give advice to the working person, but I don't believe in racism, we're all human." Oaten, who previously declared that estate life was about "eating lots of McDonalds and watching Coronation Street", fails to take up the issues, incorrectly suggesting the man supported 'white people first', when in fact he had clearly said 'working people'.
This unwillingness to engage with the issues that drive people towards the far-right is in-keeping with his stance back in his home constituency. In the June European elections he protested the rise of the BNP by claiming: "In my mind those that voted for the BNP are either racist or ignorant."
MPs like Oaten make no attempt to engage with the electorate and win them away from the racist politics of the far-right. They prefer to denounce and disregard the concerns of working people, while contributing to the very conditions which lead to their desperation.
Oaten, who throughout the show was cast as one of the more 'likeable' parliamentarians, was dismayed at the damp, overcrowded conditions of the estate, confessing that he found it 'awkward' and 'embarrassing' to discuss his own luxurious country home, complete with sprawling lawn and swimming pool.
In comparison one of the women he stayed with, a 45 year old mother of four has never had a garden and calls her home "my prison". He criticised one woman for spending part of her state benefits on cigarettes but his embarrassment increased when she decided to google Oaten's expenses claims.
As with any reality show the series deployed the usual editing tricks to give each of the MPs their own narrative, highlighting their personalities over their politics and the real issues of the estates, yet it still proved one clear truth.
Nice as their on-screen personas may appear, the Westminster MPs were separated from their hosts, not by work ethic, taste or culture, but by a clear class divide that no amount of patronising empathy can cross.
Their inability to understand the struggles people face throughout their everyday lives is a clear symptom of the irrelevance of the Westminster parties to ordinary people and further evidence, if any was needed, that the millions of working people living in similar conditions cannot rely on the parliamentary elite, but must organise politically to represent themselves.