Book review by NOAH KEATE
Reporting on politics has always required treading a fine dividing line. On the one hand, the practice for journalists involves examining different policy areas. From health to education, criminal justice to foreign affairs, the brilliance of politics stems from the volume of topics that are covered in how a society is run. On the other hand, politics can be portrayed as a soap opera. Which politicians are on the up? Who will be the next party leader? How will a politician gain revenge on their opponent?
Though gripping, I have always been somewhat dismissive of the latter aspect of politics. While an inevitable part of every political system, democratic or otherwise, the focus on policy over personality is a factor I believe journalists should, where possible, prioritise. Although goings-on at Westminster may excite obsessive politicos like me, policy decisions are likely to have a far greater impact on the lives of the electorate across the country.
Marie Le Conte’s ‘Haven’t You Heard: Gossip, Politics and Power’ sought to change my mind by suggesting gossip was an intrinsic, important and valuable part of the political process. Giving a comprehensive guide to all that take in Westminster, Le Conte highlighted how Westminster was,
in reality, just another workplace. There is gossip in every office or over Zoom: why should Parliament be any different? Similarly, political decisions are made by humans. It is in our nature to gossip.
Of course, the main difference is that decisions made in Parliament affect how the country is run for the foreseeable future. It is remarkable just how small Westminster is. A square mile, it is natural that such a high volume of people in a small area will communicate with each other informally. The book highlights how, if someone said politicians only discussed the political, and not the personal, nobody would believe them.
I found Le Conte’s book gripping and revealing in numerous ways. Though I’m aware of many aspects of Westminster politics, ‘Haven’t You Heard’ fully revealed behind the curtain how MPs really operate. What you see in the news is only a small part of it. MPs communicate with people in their parliamentary intake, on the ideological wing of their party, in select committees, through whips, clerks, librarians, parliamentary staff…the list goes on. Understandably, informal gossip will play a part of that.
‘Haven’t You Heard’ did contain some worrying aspects. Much gossip given about politicians is often communicated over alcohol. Large sections of the book are devoted to detailing the different pubs and bars in SW1 that MPs, journalists and parliamentary staff frequent on a regular basis. Of course, every MP is an adult and so knows their personal limits. But I can’t help but find it a concerning trend that drink is such a dependent, seemingly important part of the Westminster life.
What is gossip? That is the question ‘Haven’t You Heard’ tries to uncover. It is a piece of information that is scandalous: what a politician has done therefore goes against social conventions (taken illegal drugs, had an affair). Gossip must also be little known; the more people that are aware of a topic, the less importance it becomes. Its controversy is diminished.
Aside from determining legislation, MPs must decide whether to leak such information to the media. Journalists then have to make a judgement over whether to report on it or not. Le Conte in a fascinating manner uncovers the path a reporter must go through before deciding whether to cover a story. Firstly, to avoid libel action, it must be factually true. Gossip doesn’t have to be. Secondly, it must be in the public interest. A single MP having a consensual relationship with a single parliamentary researcher wouldn’t be. A minister promoting conservative family values while having an affair would most certainly be in the public interest.
The book fundamentally emphasises the tenet of politics: in order to be successful and enact legislation, you must first win power. While one’s ideological platform can play a part, the factions and friendships one has built in politics over time can be crucial. This is where gossip can be beneficial. If there are rumours a leadership candidate has treated their staff in an appalling manner, that could rightly cost them the prize of victory. Even though their parliamentary staff
might not receive the justice they deserve, the rumours of how they were treated could prevent the person from attaining high office.
Naturally, ‘Haven’t You Heard’ was reliant on speaking to many politicians and journalists, many of whom spoke off the record and were unnamed. This is frustrating for transparency and the reader, but it didn’t stop an engaging, shocking closer look into Westminster. Talk of how MPs and Parliament are out of touch from average voters (if there were ever such a thing) is a frequently used cliche. Despite the public being left out of much parliamentary gossip, Marie Le Conte’s book is resolute and persuasive in arguing that the power to spread information informally ultimately provides MPs, and therefore voters, with far more power.