Jane Merrick: Political debate should be on issues not individuals

Does Laura Pidcock see herself as a future leader of the Labour Party? The question of whether a woman will ever become Labour leader came up again this week when Harriet Harman, reflecting on her long political career, said she could have beaten Ed Miliband in 2010.

When the time comes to replace Jeremy Corbyn, there are many who believe the party that is supposed to represent fairness and equality should at long last elect a woman.

To the list of potential candidates from all wings of the party, including Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Yvette Cooper, we should now add Pidcock. Why? Because she has declared she can never be friends with a Tory as they are the “enemy.”

Her remarks have caused widespread dismay, including among fellow Labour MPs. Pidcock tried to clarify her comments, made to the website Skwawkbox, by insisting she would represent all people, including Conservative voters, in her constituency of North West Durham, and that she was only referring to Tory politicians.

But that doesn’t matter — in Corbyn’s Labour Party the new politics is not the “kinder, gentler” brand that he called for when he became leader two years ago, but one where tribalism and stoking division are paramount.

These are the conditions he has created, and his successor will surely be someone whose politics punches at this level.

Pidcock says her feelings towards Conservative MPs is “visceral” because she feels “disgusted at the way they’re running the country… where lots of people live in a constant state of fear whether they even have enough to eat”.

She is right to be appalled at the conditions in which the poorest people live in this, one of the most advanced countries on earth.

She is right to feel anger at the lack of good quality, safe housing for many, at children going hungry this summer holiday because their parents cannot afford food.

Her arguments are powerfully put, representing the raw anger that many politicians have expressed over social injustices over the years.

It is a pity, then, that she undermines her own case by declaring she cannot be friends with politicians from other parties.

What’s more, Pidcock wheels out the tired claim that Conservatives hate women — something that is self-evidently untrue about a party which is on its second female leader.

Political debate thrives when the issues, not the individuals, are fair game. You can viscerally hate an opponent’s views but how can you debate them if you are blinded by your own hatred of that person?

Many MPs are friends with political opponents, and it is through these friendships that progress is made. Raising important issues in the Commons has a greater impact when it has cross-party support.

When Jo Cox used her maiden speech to declare we have “more in common” than that which divides us, she was talking about voters from different backgrounds, but the late MP was also a champion of cross-party cooperation — memorably, raising the issue of humanitarian aid in Syria with the Conservative former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.

The current hung Parliament means cross-party cooperation is needed more than ever, particularly on Brexit, or else stalemate and deadlock will win the day.

We should leave personality politics and character assassination to the US. So it is for this reason I won’t call Pidcock “childish” and “juvenile”, as others have, for refusing to make friends with Tories.

I also believe Pidcock’s presence in Parliament — a working class woman from the north east — is much-needed when, well into the 21st century, the Commons is still dominated by men from privileged backgrounds.

Her maiden speech a couple of weeks after becoming an MP in June will have resonated with many northern working class voters who feel Westminster does not represent them.

Parliament, she said, is “intimidating” and “reeks of the establishment and of power… it was built at a time when my class and my sex would have been denied a place within it because we were deemed unworthy”.

Pidcock can help change Parliament, by making it look and sound more like the people it represents, but she is going to need friends — from all parties — to make it happen.

The Independent