Tune in, turn away, drop out: emotionality and the decision not to stand

As a 2019 General Election became an inevitability, one of the main news stories focused on the MPs who would not be standing. In total, 74 MPs decided not to contest their seats in this election; not a record number by any means, but a significant figure given that this was the third election in only four years. We propose that there were pertinent reasons why those standing down became the specific focus of media attention, and that by readjusting our focus toward those choosing not to campaign as MPs, significant characteristics of the current atmosphere of UK political culture are revealed.

Our title above first refers to the ‘tuning in’ of politicians, not only in the retelling of personalised stories of constituents, but tuning in to their own emotionalities in public debates. Parliament has heard personal testimony from MPs, talking about their own domestic abuse or confessional experiences of abortion. But emotional exposure is risky. When female Labour MPs expressed concerns that the threats they had received echoed Boris Johnson’s own rhetoric on Brexit, he dismissed this as “humbug”, sparking commentary on some of the ‘angriest scenes’ witnessed in the Commons. Abuse of MPs is just one of the reasons they are ‘turning away’ from their parties and parliament. This turning away is a political action in its own right; on a party level we have seen turbulence as MPs leave one party, create new alliances, have the whip removed and join their old adversaries. Amongst this fracturing, others decide to ‘drop out’ entirely.

Into this mix, the related media coverage often provided a platform to probe far beyond the clichéd ‘wanting to spend more time with the family’ mantra. Nicky Morgan cited both public abuse and the fact that she’d never attended her son’s parents’ evenings as her reasons. The BBC came under fire for giving ex-Labour MP Ian Austin leading coverage in his appeal for voters to back Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn as he stepped down as an independent MP. On 6 November, Austin was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme by Nick Robinson, who paused and said, “I’ve known you for many years…I hope you don’t mind me saying this, you’re not finding this easy are you? This is quite an emotional day for you.” Inserting his own emotionally-attuned reading of his interviewee’s emotions here served to authenticate Austin’s position.

Heidi Allen is further example of an MP choosing to turn away. Announcing her decision on 29 October, she noted that the abuse suffered as an MP had been “utterly dehumanising” and that her decision to stand down was “heartbreaking”. The emotionality evidenced here raises key questions about abuse and a broken parliament. Allen’s movements – from the Conservative Party, to leading Change UK, and finally to the Liberal Democrats – exemplified, for some, a political inauthenticity. Yet, viewed another way, what such movements may reveal is a clear sense of political homelessness.

Allen, of course, is not alone in moving parties and the rise in MPs turning away from one party and turning toward another, is politically prescient. Perhaps what we can read through such shifts is a broader and more critical change in UK political culture – an unmooring from party allegiance and a realignment toward personal or, more accurately, persona-based constancy. If this reading is right, then the place of emotionality is central to this new order.

While emotion and strength of feeling have always been understood as a consistent marker of party politics, the space that emotion now takes up in the mediation of contemporary political life can be understood as a point of difference. In the context of those MPs standing down, emotion and the performance of it, has shaped their public personas and is one of the key contexts through which agenda-setting, image-building and image-breaking take place. Despite the public discourse around separation between political and ordinary lives however, perhaps what Allen’s case exemplifies is the emotional proximity rather than the distance between MPs and citizens. When a traditional structure is undergoing seismic change in shape, space and cultural place, those who are most vulnerable are likely to be the first to be swept away. In nominating her exhaustion, Allen implies that she can’t ‘hang on’.

Following their research into the intimidation of elected representatives, Sarah Childs and Rosie Campbell pertinently asked: “Who would want to be an MP, and especially a woman or BAME MP?” The paradox is that, as with the 2017 election, a record number of female MPs have been elected again. Labour will have more female than male MPs. In this new parliament, we wait to see whether the new contingent of representatives together cultivate a shift in parliamentary culture, and how they employ emotional registers in doing so.