Fighting Division and Disinformation – from Outside the Westminster Media Bubble
After 18 years, and with an important role in Parliament’s landmark fake news inquiry, a veteran Labour MP diagnoses the real echo chamber in politics.
Ian Lucas isn’t part of the club, he tells me, over a cup of tea in Westminster two days before he stands down as an MP after 18 years.
“I’ve never spoken to Laura Kuenssberg. Matthew Elliott [the chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign] has spoken to Laura Kuenssberg much more than me.”
Despite not being asked to appear on news programmes and having “barely spoken” to the leader of his party, Jeremy Corbyn, over the past three years, Ian Lucas has been a man on a mission.
When we meet, he has just finished his last evidence session on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee. He has a cheeky – strictly, forbidden – photo taken alongside its chair, Conservative MP Damian Collins, whom he clearly respects, as a memento. The cause of disinformation, fake news, and the threats to our democracy from social media and data misuse is one he wants to continue championing after he steps away from his Wrexham seat in Wales on Wednesday.
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The Committee’s work has had a global reach. The US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent questioning of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg over Cambridge Analytica and dark political ads came about through their teams liaising, Lucas says. “He won’t come and see us so they asked the questions for us.”
For the 59-year-old – who is not standing for re-election mainly for “personal reasons” – his work on the DCMS Committee is a case in point of how politicians of different stripes can work together and show “Parliament and parliamentary democracy at its best”.
He believes that a lack of cross-party cooperation in the national interest, the emergence of “trench warfare” and an entrenched “north London dining circuit” who hold all the cards are some of the biggest problems facing the political system today.
Tribes in Trenches
Just before we meet, news reports emerge confirming that No. 10 has decided to block the publication of a report into Russian interference in British politics until after the General Election on 12 December. Lucas’ immediate concern as he leaves politics is the “dishonesty in the people who are leading the country” – namely, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings – and the accountability which evades them.
“The three people who were involved in a dishonest campaign in 2016 are about to be leading a dishonest campaign in 2019 and what I find astonishing is that they have not been held to account by the mainstream media in the UK,” he tells me. “They are granting access to journalists who are not asking them questions that they should be and appear to be spellbound by the trappings of office.”
“Really good, honest Conservative MPs”, such as Collins, are not in positions of power in a Tory Party now in the grip of a small, right-wing populist wing, while his own party has failed to hold the Government to account, he says. “We’ve missed a trick by not making this really about integrity and the fact that we’ve got a Prime Minister who doesn’t have integrity.”
The working synergy between Collins and Lucas was clear to see in the DCMS Committee’s final hearing, in which they questioned representatives from Paypal about how its payments service could be gamed by political parties receiving unlawful foreign donations to their campaigns. Their eyes would meet over lines of questioning, the same thoughts silently shared.
“I’m quite a tribal politician,” Lucas says. “I’ve always been Labour, I’m from a Labour family. Before I came into Parliament, I couldn’t even understand how you work with the Tories… and, at times, it’s been extremely difficult as there’s a lot of Conservative MPs I don’t particularly get on with. But there are some here who are really excellent parliamentarians who I would like to have in the trenches with me if in a war situation and I understand now how something like a national government in a war situation works – because you work with colleagues in the national interest.”
He says today’s “trench warfare” is between “people who are not prepared to countenance disagreement”.
“I feel very passionately about my politics but we’ve got to take people with us. Mrs May’s historic failing was that she had the opportunity to reach out to the opposition before she called the 2017 General Election, she could have taken the Brexit deal through, but she didn’t do that and we now have a situation where Boris Johnson is even more tribal because he sees that as in his political interest so we’ve got this complete polarisation.”
Lucas says Labour is just as bad. “Corbyn’s got a very small tribal group around him. He doesn’t provide the leadership either, he doesn’t reach out to people who aren’t natural Labour supporters.”
Dinner Party Politics
Journalists don’t want to speak to politicians like him, Lucas tells me. He doesn’t fit.
The former solicitor, who was brought up in a council house in Gateshead and attended Oxford University, has “never been particularly comfortable with the whole media set-up around Westminster”, consisting of the same journalists speaking to the same MPs.
“Journalists have their own agendas and want somebody to say what they want them to be saying so they can report it and it fits in with the article they’re going to write,” he tells me. “There’s been a problem for a long time with journalism.”
He believes the same dynamic has been apparent for many years – of a “north London dining circuit” – the members of which know each other personally, making holding people in power to account tricky. It also helps explain “the whole Metropolitan focus of UK politics,” Lucas says.
“We’ve had a much too centralised system that’s led to alienation of not just Scotland and Wales, but northern and English towns, these people are remote and disengaged with politics. And then you’ve got this very small group who know each other, and it goes across political parties sometimes, but it’s the same group of people and mostly they are not the people in Parliament. Most parliamentarians are very much in touch with their own communities, they work bloody hard, but they’re not the people who necessarily get on the telly. There’s been a decline in coverage from the regions and there’s been a very Metropolitan focus.”
For Lucas, one of the “biggest failings” of recent governments – including Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – has been that MPs are not listened to enough about what they know is going wrong with polices from their constituents.
“Sometimes it’s not about Parliament being out of touch, it’s about the Government not listening to Parliament, it’s about the fact that there is this elite group – and we’ve got an elite group now which is different to the elite group who were there in the Noughties, except they still have dinner together – and we are the people who are in touch who are not listened to,” he says.
This is also true of Corbyn. “The only people he listens to are these characters around him who I’ve never met,” Lucas says frankly.
No one from the Labour leader’s office has ever reached out to him to discuss the work he has done on the DCMS Committee looking into misinformation, data misuse, electoral wrongdoing or Russian interference, he says. Lucas is clearly still a bit perplexed about why. It’s an open goal and Corbyn seems to have simply walked off the pitch.
Lucas’s Wrexham constituency voted to leave the EU by 59% in 2016. If Brexit happens, he believes the United Kingdom of four nations will be finished, with Scottish independence the first likely fracture.
He does not think that Johnson is a leader who can steer Britain through its “constitutional crisis”. “He likes being Prime Minister and he likes the trappings of all of the things that he wants to do,” Lucas says. “But, what does he want to do? What does he think about anything?”
Can Britain build a new, centre-ground alternative from the ashes?
“Of course,” Lucas says. “But we have to political parties that are reaching out to the people who didn’t vote for them last time rather than criticise them because they’re the opposition. The reason I liked Tony Blair was because in politics you’ve got to be counter-intuitive, you’ve got to move onto the ground that is the other party’s ground. Tony Blair did this with ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.”
For example, he believes Labour should claim the issue of savings as its owns because “things start to go wrong in the 1980s when people started borrowing and personal debt is one of the biggest problems that we have in this country. It was the Tories who began the personal debt crisis”.
“We need policies which move onto Conservative territory and the Tories need to have policies which go on the Labour territory and then we’ll have a proper engagement and a real political debate. At the moment, we’re in trenches throwing rocks at each other. I don’t think the public likes it and it’s going to be a long war to get out of them.”
It’s a war I sense he’ll continue to fight. Outside of the club.