“You can't win at politics and be a joke.” That was the advice given to Austin Mitchell in the Strangers' Bar of the Commons when he first became an MP back in the 1970s. It was wise counsel but the irrepressible Mitchell ignored it and in his own words “suffered the consequences for 30 years”.
His new book, Confessions of a Political Maverick, is entertaining, thought-provoking and shrewd. Yet it is overlaid with a sense of sadness and regret. Even before we have reached chapter one, he says in the introduction: “In this maverick's tale, I've tried to give a more realistic picture of the mundane reality of the backbencher's life, its frustrations and failures, the constant pressure of the treadmill, the lack of influence and power wielded in more glamorous and better paid occupations. Like the chronicles of most political careers, this is a story of failure but at a lower level than the cataclysmic failures managed by those at the top of the tree.”
“The main parties regularly overspend but never protest at the other side because they know it would unleash a tit-for-tat contest" – Austin Mitchell
That reference to better paid, more glamorous jobs is heartfelt. A Yorkshire grammar school boy who ended up at Oxford, Austin Mitchell had already been successful as an academic and a TV broadcaster both in the UK and New Zealand before he “drifted” into becoming MP for Grimsby. The picture he paints of the Commons over a period of nearly 40 years is revealing as well as vivid and some of the parallels with the present bring the reader up with a jolt.
This summer we have seen claims that Vote Leave broke the law by overspending. Westminster has been scandalised – but Mitchell says blithely: “The main parties regularly overspend but never protest at the other side because they know it would unleash a tit-for-tat contest.” The trouble comes with the smaller parties. When the Grimsby Labour secretary defected to the SDP, he went to court and proved that Austin's people had overspent. “He didn't succeed in his ambition of getting me disqualified but my agent, a Grimsby docker, was tried and fined £8,000.” Mitchell doesn't tell us whether he helped to pay the docker's fine.
On the infamy of MPs' expenses, he is searingly honest. As soon as he arrived in the Commons, he found other MPs “happy to advise me on all the tricks and deceits of expense fiddling”. Foreign travel was the best scam, with MPs flying round the world at taxpayers' expense in “their efforts to create international understanding, particularly between countries with good hotels and beaches”.
He bemoans the collapse of public respect for Parliament but admits that debate is often “useless” – more a “parade of prejudice than a meeting of minds”. Yet he insists that the powerless need a public defender and only Parliament can provide it. He has string of suggestions for reform ranging from better training and better staffing for MPs to pre-hearings on bills and a ban on outside earnings and employment for MPs. He then says that the ban need not cover journalism or media appearances – the very area where he himself made extra cash.
This is not the only time he goes in for contradiction. He attacks the “debasing din of yah-boo sucks politics” but does it himself with some blanket condemnations of the Tories saying all they are interested in is power. He is more nuanced on individuals. In between railing at her party, he had a soft spot for Thatcher who replied to his letters – unlike Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He says that with New Labour “public relations replaced thinking”, and adds: “The only group that still discussed ideas and policies was the Campaign group. It was stimulating but small and, with Diane Abbott as secretary, badly organised. If the revolution ever comes, the Campaign group won't be there. Diane Abbott will have forgotten to book the room.”
He found being a good constituency MP the most satisfying part of the job and he writes movingly about Grimsby with its fishing industry in decline after the cod war. His long-standing hostility to Europe was only intensified by Brussels' rules which gave “us only a small proportion of our fish”.
Mitchell was popular in the Commons and his observant, sometimes cynical but amusing style of writing makes it easy to see why. His book provides a fascinating, warts-and-all picture of Westminster as seen as seen by one of its foot soldiers. Future historians will have it on their reading lists.
Confessions of a Political Maverick, by Austin Mitchell; Biteback Publishing; £20