THE House of Commons might not physically resemble the febrile, crowded, bear pit of previous debates and denouements any more, but the hostility which is fast becoming part and parcel of our country’s discourse again, after a brief corona and Be Kind respite, is still very much in evidence. 

Labour MP Angela Rayner discovered this this week during a debate on economic support measures for areas in lockdown. Having spoken about the death of her aunt from Covid-19, Rayner seems to have taken exception to Conservative MP Chris Clarkson accusing Labour of “opportunism” saying that the shadow education secretary Kate Green saw the pandemic as a “good crisis which the Labour Party should exploit”. He added: “I know she speaks for a lot of her front bench colleagues when she says that…” 

Rayner unleashed her verbal missile, and just in case the Deputy Speaker and the Hansard reporter hadn’t heard it, Clarkson, pausing for extra effect, said in a clear, slightly hurt voice: “Did the Honourable lady just call me scum?” This brought a stern rebuke from the Deputy Speaker – channelling peak Miss Jean Brodie – and an apology from Rayner later on.  

That Clarkson was able to seize the moment and build political capital from it, was clearly not Rayner’s intention. Labour had been on the high ground with the Government arguing against extending free school meals over the Christmas holidays and having got into a David and Goliath- style struggle with Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham over that city’s entry into Tier Three coronavirus restrictions. Instead, in the age of rolling social media parliamentary coverage, Rayner’s language became the story complete with it’s own hashtag. And there was no let-up with the following day seeing continued – some might argue faux – outrage at the language deployed. 

Over the last five or six years, language in Parliament does seem to have increasingly mirrored the polarised nature of our political discourses, and it doesn’t have to have been unparliamentary to cause hurt and division. During debates on Brexit who can forget the cries of “traitor” and “betrayal” that we heard booming from the chamber, designed to curry favour with the electorate, or SNP MP Allan Brown’s description of Theresa May’s Brexit deal as “crap”, and Boris’s deal as “even crappier; so get it up ye”. A very dim view of members who accuse each other of lying has been taken by successive Speakers too, unless of course you dress it up with posh words like Boris Johnson’s “humbug” (which literally means “speech that is obviously untrue, dishonest or nonsense”) in which case it’s absolutely fine. We’re all there for a bit of “poppycock”, but hell mend you if you’re a parliamentarian who utters words most of us actually use.  

Rayner was not helped by the sparseness of the chamber where once, loud jeering, ra-ra-ing and general debating club-type atmospherics meant that the odd muttered expletive might have gone unnoticed. Instead, like most public spaces now, stripped bare by coronavirus, her word rang out in the echoey nakedness of the chamber.  

Perhaps this was not the best choice of word from Rayner and certainly is in the category of unparliamentary, but I wonder if this is another example of how the tetchiness and aggression of our virtual interactions can infiltrate real life too. Rayner is one of many MPs of all political colours who receive daily abuse and threats via email and on social media. I have often wondered how they manage to not let it impact them, to nip at their psyches, to traumatise them. I’m not condoning the language, but more pointing out the environment Rayner and others find themselves in. “Scum” would probably be one of the nicer epithets they find in their inboxes every morning.  

And Rayner has her supporters who argue that some of the policies being pursued by the UK government are so cruel and hard-hearted, and the accusation that Labour is being opportunistic in a crisis, mean that her words are in fact accurate. But, no matter where you stand on the debate it’s not a good look to excuse bad language by arguing it’s not a slur but a descriptor, in the same way as most of us don’t see words such as “betrayal”, “traitor” and “collaborator” as actual descriptions in the context of the Brexit withdrawal debate.  

It’s all subjective of course, but rather than let a word slip out which catastrophically detracts from what’s really going on, Rayner should have invoked the spirit of a woman who this week annihilated her opposition in New Zealand, with no bad language required. Next time the Labour deputy leader feels like uttering an unkind remark, she might stop to ask, would Jacinda say this? It’s called the politics of kindness and it might just catch on.