“I have used my teacher’s stare” Emma Burnell interviews Martin Whitfield MP

31.12.17 / In: Comment

Martin Whitfield MP already seems at home in Parliament as we meet for a coffee. This may be less to do with his affinity for the place (in fact he argues that you should never get too comfortable “Westminster is a bubble and you’ve got to be very, very careful about [that]”) than who he is. A former primary school teacher, a proud Scot who grew up in the North East of England, Whitfield gives off the sense of being comfortably in control of his environment.

Avenues and opportunities

As befits someone who has been both a teacher and a lawyer, Whitfield is a very thoughtful speaker. He opens our conversation with praise for the role Open Labour has been playing in providing “avenues and opportunities for debate… so we can start developing the really important ideas.”

Whitfield believes it was the ideas in the manifesto that were the real game changer. “People suddenly found a message from Labour that resonated with the sort of message their parents and grandparents understood about Labour. Suddenly young people went “actually, they were right all those years ago” and had a confidence in the ideas of bringing back community ownership; tackling poverty; the audacity of suggesting that perhaps educating children is a really good thing; not burdening young people with incredible debt that’s unpayable.”

Hope in our message

The key aspect that Labour brought to the election, Whitfield believes, is a sense of hope. There is a sense that people are saying they don’t mind paying a bit more for an NHS that works, for well educated children. “That move away from Thatcher materialism can only be a good thing. There is now light at the end of the tunnel and people can see it. There’s hope in our message now.”

He blames Cameron’s mishandling of internal Tory politics for Brexit calling it “unforgivable”. But his biggest concern is that Brexit could derail the hope that people feel. Especially with it being handed “appallingly” by the Tory government.

He is also very sceptical of Theresa May’s attempt to clothe herself in Ed Miliband’s rhetoric of a ‘British promise’ (“stealing the labels anyway!”). Theresa May is diagnosing the problems, but she simply can’t accept that her failed methods are not the solution.

“you can grab a banner and wave it around, but if you don’t believe in it, if it doesn’t genuinely speak of who you are, all you’re doing is waving a piece of cloth around.

“It doesn’t matter what your messaging is, it’s what you deliver on. You will deliver on messages you believe in. If you just run messages to get elected, is it any wonder that people turn around and say ‘Excuse me, what are you doing? Are you really strong and stable?’”

Extremely disappointed

In Scotland, while the Tories targeted East Lothian – during the campaign Theresa May visited and Ruth Davidson came several times – it is the SNP who dominate. They rule the Scottish Parliament and hold the majority of Scottish seats in the UK Parliament, though have gone backwards in both recently.

Whitfield believes that the SNP’s brand of aggrieved nationalism doesn’t gain them the same amount of traction when the electorate are looking for hope. He is “extremely disappointed” with the way the SNP have failed to bring Scotland together following its binary and divisive independence referendum. “Not to deal with the consequences other than to suddenly clamour for another referendum I find very, very worrying. It speaks of a nationalism that isn’t based on what is best for all, but what is best for some.”

What do we want from our MPs?

It’s safe to say Whitfield wasn’t completely expecting his victory.

“The Wednesday before the count, I was doing spelling homework for Monday morning!” He says.

He never got to give out that homework as he was thrust immediately into the job of being an MP. As someone who fell into being a candidate largely by winning an argument started on a campaigning stall about the need for a local candidate from East Lothian, his bemusement was inevitable. As he said to fellow new Scottish MPs “We’re not in Kansas anymore!”

He is passionate about Parliamentary reform, talking about how ridiculous it is that MPs on maternity leave can’t vote remotely. He sees the forthcoming work on the Parliamentary estate as a chance to have a wider and deeper conversation about both the way parliamentary politics is practised but also the role of MPs.

Like many new MPs he’s shocked by some of the behaviour in the chamber of this ‘Mother of Parliaments’. He says that when faced with some of the hectoring and badgering of himself and others he’s been shocked “I’ve had to employ my teacher’s stare!”

But again, he develops this issue into a wider set of thoughts around reform and democracy.

“We need to ask the question ‘what do we want from our MPs?’”

He argues that no one is really sure what MPs can or should do. There isn’t a job description and a lot of the existing structure actually impede the job constituents want people to do. However, when it comes to one regular refrain heard from voters, he’s sceptical.

“That endless question of ‘why don’t parties come together?’ On one level, that appears an attractive, simple solution. But the difficulty is we have political parties that are driven by deeply help beliefs about what is right, what is kind, what will work. You can’t just put those together because you wouldn’t get agreement around the table. And you’d end up with a committee decision that may well do more damage than not.”

Kindness

The word that jumped out at me several times as I interviews Whitfield was kindness. His vision of socialism is of a pragmatic approach informed not by dogma, but by humanity. A fierce socialism informed by his years as a public-sector worker informs a politics led from a combination of thoughtful heart and head.

Kindness is a virtue we could all learn to use a bit more of in politics at all levels and on all sides. The kind sternness of the best kind of primary school teacher may be just what is needed.

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