being a conversation I have towards #agoodquestion, about which you can read more here.
Barry describes himself as a socialist, who would never vote Conservative because they are “the party of privilege”. He’s retired, about to turn 70, and lives in Wigan. He’s my uncle.
His good question: what do you think about the European Union? Which draws a complex response for me: liking the sociopolitical dimensions, and the scope for setting positive legislation like the human rights act; less certain about the common economic conditions especially as the austerity regime is imposed on Syriza-led Greece.
My good question: if the current electoral system were dissolved tomorrow, what would you replace it with? His response: keep it pretty much as it is, but abolish the party whip so MPs are free to vote with their conscience, and make them more accountable by publishing their attendance and voting record.
I don’t see Barry as often as I’d like. I didn’t imagine we’d be vastly different in our politics, but he was in my mind as he turns 70 soon, and thinking that asking him might give us opportunity to have a longer and richer conversation than we’d normally do over the phone. He agreed and we arranged to speak when we both had a drink to hand, so it was a little bit like we were down the pub.
I asked him about his politics, and what experiences had shaped these.
He worked in a ‘dying industry’, for 25 years with Leyland and Dunlop. He took redundancy, but carried on working til 60 for his pension. He lives in Wigan, which he jokes is called Greater Manchester but is really Lancashire. This sparks us talking about the Scottish referendum; he didn’t want Scottish independence because then we’d be left with an English Tory government forever.
He’s cynical about politicians. He says he might not vote but then his friends would tell him off. Six of them used to work at Leyland together, all retired now and meet up for a drink every Friday.
He’s a socialist. He would never ever vote Conservative, it’s always been a party of privilege. He’s almost always voted Labour. The only exception that he voted Lib-Dem in 2010 because he didn’t like that Labour had introduced an all-female shortlist – I note that as a difference between us – but he likes the current MP so he will vote for her. UKIP are Nasty Tories. He would consider voting Green but they are not standing in his constituency.
He explains that he’s Labour because of his upbringing in a mining and engineering town. He’s been in unions on and off, but seen the unions at their worst at Dunlop in Liverpool: too powerful, too inflexible, too much vested interest. I talk about an approach to negotiation I try to take – following Coney’s principle of loveliness – where you consider everyone’s interests and try to maximise those together, rather than tussling for turf; especially important when the ongoing relationships are important. Barry agrees: you end up with a complete lack of trust otherwise, and that scuppered the unions. Although as heavy manufacturing has evaporated, the traditional union membership isn’t naturally there any more, and that natural Labour vote has accordingly dwindled.
Barry liked Neil Kinnock, because he’d had the guts to take on the hard left. Which other Labour leaders have you liked? The good ones passed too soon, he says, Gaitskell and John Smith. Blair and Wilson were too much about their own ego. And Parliament is now so bland, they are all so young! You need to be in your sixties to be PM, you need to have lived a little.
Barry’s not convinced by Miliband. I reckon that both Miliband and Cameron are very managerial, and to scared of fucking up to say what they actually mean. Barry agrees, and says that when he worked in factories, there was a running joke that the managers assure you they know what they are doing, but they know less than you most of the time.
I talk about my own politics and where they come from. I’m left-wing, I don’t know if I’d call myself a socialist but I am certainly instinctively anti-conservative. I demolished a Tory from the floor in my school’s mock election debate and as a result almost joined Labour. I was the youngest member of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms and got blooded on the anti-Poll Tax demos in Scotland. Perhaps I’m the first in my family to define themselves politically more through single issues and identity politics than through class politics. I’m also a geek for understanding how people organise themselves – it’s my line of work, in a way – and so drawn to look at the likes of Syriza and Podemos and wonder if something like that could happen here.
We share our frustrations of the electoral system. I wonder if a first-past-the-post system inevitably gravitates towards two parties facing off on either side of a sliver of the centre, both desperately trying not to fuck up. Perhaps this election, as poised as it is, might fragment things more. That could be a good thing. But Barry reckons that all the smaller parties will be very wary of going into coalition with the recent death of the Lib Dems in mind.
It’s been a good conversation, and to round it off I ask if he can think of a good question for me.
What do you think of the EEC, he asks? That old name for the EU shows the age difference between us. I’m not surefooted in my answer, recognising mostly that I don’t really know very much. Socially and culturally, I like it. The idea of more open borders across the continent. I don’t know enough about the powers that it has as a big state. Although as Barry says, we only hear the bad stories through our press and there is some incredibly positive legislation that has impact and authority because it’s Europe-wide, human rights, workers protection etc. But I’m concerned the stand-off between Syriza-led Greece and Germany, looking to impose the austerity regime. Barry argues that economic union across a continent is tricky, if you consider the differences in value in say house price even across a country. We both agree that if there were a referendum, we’d both need to understand more deeply than we currently do just what we’d be voting.
As a preamble to my good question I tell him of a manifesto I pitched at BAC 5 years ago as a new model of government. I’d abolish the Monarch and Prime Minister and replace them with a pair of rabbits (any pair will do). I’d abolish the House of Commons and replace it with 200 citizens on day service, a bit like jury service, voting on legislation. I’d abolish the House of Lords and replace it with two chambers each with power of veto, one of 80-year-olds and one of 8-year-olds. The 80-year-olds would veto on behalf of the future, the generation yet to come. The 8-year-olds would veto on the basis of it not being clear, fair, fun – or if it appeared to be upsetting the rabbits.
If the electoral system were dissolved tomorrow and it were up to you, Barry, to introduce a new system, what would you do? That’s a good question, he says after a long pause (and I’m blushing). His answer: he’d probably keep most of what we’ve got now. But he’d abolish the party whip in Parliament so that every vote was a free vote for MPs to act according to their conscience. Also to publish their individual attendance and voting records, so that they are fully accountable to their constituents. Perhaps political parties still stay as a kind of looser affiliation of independent MPs. That’s a good answer, I say.
I’m feeling confident so I pick up on a previously noted difference – what about the all-female shortlist, don’t you think that’s a good way to redress what is otherwise an imbalanced system? Barry gets that but is still adamant that he wants to be able to vote for the best candidates, regardless of background. We agree to disagree. And it’s time to call a close.