Towering Inferno

It is hard to imagine the catastrophe that is Tower Block of Commons, (Monday Channel 4, 9pm).

The premise: Wife Swap meets Newsnight. The participants: 4 MPs, specifically and alphabetically: Nadine “living in fear of a suicide” Dorries (Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire, 2005), Tim ’30 miles away’ Loughton (Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham, 1997); Austin ‘nee Haddock’ Mitchell (Labour, Great Grimsby since a 1977 by-election). and Mark ‘did he REALLY do THAT’ Oaten (Liberal Democrat, Winchester, 1997). The task: stay in a Tower Block on a council estate with multiple social depravations, survive on benefits, live with methadone addiction, fast breeder nuclear families and socially trapped decent folk.

Each in their way has proved a fish out of water. The smarter ones, Oaten and Loughton, had the sense to ‘fess up’ to being just that. Each in his own way has attempted to empathise with people on the estate on which they were billeted, Oaten in Dagenham, the patch of the darling of the post-Blair leftists, Jon Cruddas, and some gang infested hell hole in Birmingham Ladywood, manor of formerly Labour, Clare ‘I won’t resign just yet’ Short.

Oaten listens, moralises, patronises, sympathises and is genuinely scared s***less but still gets involved in some good old fashioned community politics. He meets BNP voters, Labour voters and non voters and doesn’t particularly play party politics even if he is a bit too judgemental of one of his host’s £42 a week nicotine habit. Loughton too pitched in. He had the good sense to try to learn a bit about the area. Shoreham has its pockets of depravation, but full-on postcode gang warfare is not high on its list of concerns. Laughton observed and asked the right questions, even if his attempts at ‘ge’in down wiv da kidz’ were of jaw-dropping cringe worthyness, at least he wasn’t afraid to make himself look ridiculous.

Dorries, a late replacement for Iain Duncan-Smith, who had promised much in an utterly useless but great telly kind of way, made the mistake of playing Lady Bountiful with a couple of embittered and singularly scary single parents then blundered in with the size tens to a community relations issue of the kind rare in the ghettos of Mid Bedfordshire. She looked clueless and crass. Claiming that life is “much better now than when she grew up on a council estate” she showed how much she had forgotten. Materially she may have a point – personal computers, video games and cable TV weren’t part of my childhood either. But the council estates of my youth and therefore Nadine’s too were generally free of large scale worklessness and had not yet been flooded with cheep heroine by organised criminals.

But the icing on the cake of this little drama is the performance of Austin Mitchell. Why this former TV presenter agreed to take part when he wasn’t prepared to even try to play by the rules, had to be accompanied by his wife, live in a separate flat and generally claim that “MPs and councillors can’t do anything” beggared belief. Mitchell, who first won his seat in a difficult by-election and survived a hostile trend with a reputation as a good and popular local MP is probably too old to be expected to sleep on sofas. He’s also been too comfortable for too long and, despite having penned the funniest thing written during the entire expenses frenzy, is now an argument for a limit on the term that can be served by any individual MP. He’s old enough to know himself better and experienced enough to know better of the media. But worst of all was his playing up to the cameras – always a mistake on reality TV. His failure to have confidence in his power to deliver for people was miserable enough – when you lose that it really is time to stop, but even when he got a result, getting TV attention to the closure of a local youth club, it was all about Austin and not about the issue.

But anyone watching these political skirmishes might think it was the decision of the MPs alone to take part in the series. Don’t you believe it. Their party whips and press offices are sure to have had a shout and if they didn’t then they were failing to do their jobs. 

The Conservatives played it smart. Laughton was a safe pair of hands and he understood that the programme’s agenda suits the Tory narrative. Dorries, who is under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, is a self-made, working class Tory who has retained enough of a Scouse twang to be believable. If she does OK then fine, if not her bonkers-safe seat will re-elect her anyway. The Lib Dems backed a win-win. Rather than a Lembit Opik, with a larger ego and a smaller majority, they gambled on Oaten who is standing down at the election. Mr O, if he did OK might just give his successor a chance and rehabilitate himself for a future after Westminster or if he didn’t – well, what do you expect…

But what on earth was Labour thinking? Austin Mitchell was clearly not up to it. There were several MPs who could have carried it off and been a credit to their party. John Mann, the Bassetlaw MP, once lived in a council flat considerably more squalid than those featured, Martin Salter in Reading West is a man who can manage without creature comforts and Don Valley’s Caroline Flint may have misjudged her exit from the Government, but has definitely tolerated at least one Labour Party Young Socialists Summer Camp as part of a tiny minority of non-Trotskyites back before the expulsion of Militant – if you can survive torture  a Tower block is a doddle.

I’m sure there are others equally capable.  And this, I’m afraid, sums up Labour’s problem going into a close election, the political and media judgement of the party’s organisation has repeatedly been found wanting on the most basic of fronts. It is this that has let a Conservative Party that has still failed to date to convince the merge 40%+ needed for what passes as a mandate in this country hold a near winning lead.

Despite the manifest failings of the politicians, there were moments that showed that there is still hope. When the 30 or so Dagenham tenants got together at Mark Oaten’s instigation to kick off a campaign to have their blocks demolished they gave short shrift to the BNP councillor who gate crashed their event. You had to cheer.