Why are we so obsessed with that Handforth Parish Council meeting?
“It’s like watching an episode of a British remake of Parks and Rec,” I tweeted last night while streaming the now-infamous Handforth Parish Council meeting. If you haven’t seen it — and you really should — here’s a recap: two parish councillors called a meeting via Zoom, but other councillors were quite cross about this and shouted down the clerk, a woman called Jackie Weaver. The best way to describe it is like watching the dog who finally caught the car: proud of himself, until he realises exactly what that means. By that point it’s too late, and Jackie Weaver has driven off, dragging his bloodied and mangled body along with her. Brutal.
What the controversial meeting was about doesn’t really matter. There isn’t much to understand beyond the Zoom fails and shouty men. I am, however, interested in just why the Great British Public is so riveted by a video of Councillors Behaving Badly. Local government is something everyone deals with, but it is mostly a dull affair of little interest to the Twitterati. After all, local government meetings hardly have the political intrigue of House of Cards or the colourful characters of the Parks and Rec.
What makes this Handforth Parish Council meeting so compelling, then?
To answer that question, cast your mind back to January 2016. On a dreary winter’s day, the nation’s attention was captured by, of all things, a puddle. We were glued to our screens as #DrummondPuddleWatch took the country by storm. It was, on the surface, the most mundane of things: a puddle in Newcastle, and the people who had to navigate around it. Yet we were enthralled. It was, frankly, the best television of the year up to that point. (That it happened only six days into 2016 might have something to do with that. Humour me.)
There is a reason Big Brother was a cultural phenomenon, making household names out of Jade Goody and Alison Hammond in the same year. It is why Love Island is so popular, and why Channel 5 has made a cottage industry out of exploitative reality shows like Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole and Hoarders. We are a voyeuristic culture, endlessly fascinated by our own nature. Watching how people navigate a puddle — without, perhaps, even realising they are being watched — was interesting for the same reasons that watching reality tv or even a shouty parish council meeting is interesting: it tells us something about ourselves.
The Handforth Parish Council video is relatable because it is chock-full of characters who could be ripped from our own lives, or at least from the best of reality show ITV has yet to produce. There’s Julie’s I pad [sic], the hapless colleague who doesn’t seem to realise she is being recorded. Sue is the faithful friend who stands by you through thick and thin. Dastardly villain Aled’s iPad, with his menacing shouts and smug arrogance, is every middle-class, middle-aged, middle-management, middling man I have ever met. And, of course, there is our hero: the plucky Jackie Weaver, ready to shake up the Council and restore justice and order to, if not the world, at least Handforth. Or, at least this Zoom call.
These are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. (I mean that quite literally: it was actually called an “extraordinary meeting” — like, that’s the proper term for the type of meeting they were in.) Watching the Handforth Parish Council scream at one another was like watching Big Brother fight night but with slightly posher accents. You feel both superior in knowing that you don’t behave that badly but also slightly concerned that, if someone was recording you and then broadcasting selected moments of your life, you might.
Of course, in one regard the people in the Handforth Parish Council video aren’t exactly “ordinary.” They are, after all, elected councillors. And they are behaving appallingly. But that only makes it even more captivating. Very few people actually watch Prime Minister’s Questions to be informed. They watch it for the grudge match between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer.
We love to see our leaders behaving badly because it confirms our worst suspicions. “They’re not really there to serve us,” many folks think, “they’re there to serve their own egos, their own agendas. They don’t represent us, the little people.”
In that regard, the Handforth Parish Council meeting is like watching a real-life The Thick of It. It is what so many people imagine government to be: ineffectual, self-aggrandizing, personality-driven, and simply nasty. In this video, we are all Jackie Weaver, the David taking on the Goliath of local government and the infuriating bureaucracy it so often represents. Every time we are forced to fill out a permit or an application that makes absolutely no sense, we wish we could emulate Jackie and just… kick the councillors out and do it our way.
It is worth noting that for many women, that feeling was even more visceral, a fact that no doubt contributed to the meeting going viral. The way Jackie Weaver was treated — shouted at, belittled, bullied, and intimidated — is something to which too many women can relate. “Beyond the humour, the behaviour Jackie Weaver experienced is common place [sic] in all levels of politics,” Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan tweeted. “Good on her for sticking to it, but people doing their best in politics, especially women, shouldn’t have to put up with that.” It is a sentiment Jackie Weaver herself expressed in an interview with Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. “There is an element of bullying and bad behaviour in local councils,” she told Anita Rani earlier today.
Ultimately, it is the bullying and bad behaviour that has made the clip go viral, and why it resonates with so many people. The Handforth Parish Council meeting tells us something about ourselves: about how we behave when we think no one is watching, about how we respond to workplace pressures (especially in a pandemic), about the misogyny and sexist bullying still faced by many women. We like watching the Handforth Parish Council meeting because even while we thank God that isn’t us, we know it well could be.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan