Commons people: One year on, how are the new MPs coping with the highs and lows of power?
Twelve months ago, they were engineers, environmentalists and GPs, with ideals and home lives. But since 6 May 2010, they have been part of the biggest Commons intake since the war. A year on, eight new MPs reveal the highs and lows of power – and whether the argy-bargy of the House has blunted their reforming zeal
Sunday 17 April 2011
What a life a new Member of Parliament leads. Yelled at in the street and sworn at in the Commons. Frowned on for tweeting, told to shut up by party whips and shunned by ungrateful constituents. They used to be somebody, ran a business, made things, changed things. Now they spend all week away from home, wait up all night for votes that don't matter and are mistaken for a lost tourist trying to get into the debating chamber. All the while, they're out of pocket from the expenses system ushered in by the anti-politics sentiment that helped sweep them into office.
After the general election last May, more than a third of the new Parliament's intake were new to the job: 147 new Tory MPs, 63 Labour, 10 Liberal Democrats and seven from other parties. From day one they are expected to dazzle on the green benches, toe the party line and work hard in the constituency. Yet with the arrival of so many new hands on deck, mutiny is already in the air. Since the election, 70 per cent of new Lib Dem MPs have voted against the party line, compared with 40 per cent of veteran Lib Dems. (In the Tory camp, a quarter of MPs, new or old, have rebelled.) The mood of insurrection is spreading. The newbies are already calling for an overhaul of the way Parliament itself works. The radical demands include occasionally seeing their children in daylight hours, voting electronically instead of using a paper-based system Hogwarts couldn't dream up, and being allowed to pop to the toilet while waiting to speak during a debate.
Jonathan Reynolds (Lab, Stalybridge & Hyde) has said he would like to end Early Day Motions – the parliamentary petitions which cover every subject from military intervention in Libya to Ryan Giggs' 20th year at Manchester United, and cost £300 a time. Simon Hart (Con, Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire ) says the anti-social hours Parliament sits impact on family life: "Although it may just be a rumour, it is a pretty depressing statistic that 40 per cent of the married MPs who entered the House in 2005 have separated from their partners."
Most new MPs have given up well-paid, less-stressful jobs to dive into the Westminster pond. A few bring glamour, such as Gloria de Piero (Lab, Ashford), who quit her job as political editor of GMTV. David Morris (Con, Morecambe & Lunesdale) was taught guitar by Peter Frampton in the Bahamas, almost joined Duran Duran, appeared on Top of the Pops with Rick Astley, spent 20 years as a hairdresser and earlier this year introduced David Cameron k to David Hasselhoff. "I am not a politico in the respect that I haven't gone through the system," says Morris. "I'm a bloke on the street who got here against the odds. There are some things I don't agree with but will vote for if it's for the greater good of what we want to do."
For the sketch-writers, the colourful new blood has more than made up for the loss of perennial targets such as former deputy PM John Prescott or Tory grandee Anthony Steen. Richard Harrington (Con, Watford ), for example, towers over diminutive Simon Wright (Lib Dem, Norwich South). "We have got some quite promising material there," says Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail's feared scribe in the press gallery. "They are quite an impressive bunch," he adds. "They are attending much more than the Blair babes used to; they were terrified of the chamber. You look down now and realise they are here for a political purpose rather than greasy self-enrichment. A lot more of them have experience of life."
The likes of TV historian Tristram Hunt (Lab, Stoke-on-Trent Central) are at a disadvantage, Letts says. "There is terrific envy as he's good-looking and has been on the telly. There's also envy of Jo Johnson, because of his brother [Boris]."
To arrive in British politics is to be splashed across the papers. But MPs should be careful what they wish for. Rory Stewart, once best known as an Eton-educated former soldier and deputy governor of an Iraqi province, hit the headlines after describing residents in his Penrith and the Border constituency as "people holding up their trousers with bits of twine". The Conservative MP later said he was sorry and "very sad" about the episode. In July, Tory MP Mark Reckless apologised after a drinking session on the Commons terrace while waiting for a 2am vote. Mr Reckless explained at the time: "I normally have just one or two and know when to stop. I don't know what happened. I don't remember falling over." Attempts at humour can backfire. Nadhim Zahawi (Con, Stratford on Avon) was reprimanded for setting off a musical tie during a debate. And Claire Perry (Con, Devizes) apologised to John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, after being caught grumbling to colleagues about not being called in a debate. She is reported to have said: "What have I got to do to be called by the Speaker? Give him a blow job?" She later explained to her local paper: "I am a relatively new MP and I am still learning the ropes."
Matt Chorley is political correspondent of The Independent on Sunday
Rushanara Ali, 36
Bethnal Green & Bow
A rare Labour gain, retaking the seat won by George Galloway's Respect party in 2005. Former Commons researcher Ali worked at the IPPR think-tank, the Foreign Office and the Home Office before becoming associate director of the Young Foundation, a centre for social innovation. The first British Bangladeshi elected as an MP, and one of the first three Muslim women, she was promoted to Labour's front bench as a shadow international development minister
"This time last year I had been campaigning for almost three years. Arriving in Parliament was a bit of an out-of-body experience.
"Parliament still seems quite detached from reality, though most of my parliamentary colleagues don't think of us in terms of labels [first Bangladeshi MP etc]. Ten years ago, it was more of a novelty.
"Recently, when I was in Brussels, a couple of people looked like they were going to fall over when they saw I was an MP. It is still unusual in Britain, but not as unusual as in France or Germany.
"I have campaigned to get the Olympic organisers focused on jobs for people in this area. I grew up watching Canary Wharf's towers going up and local people were marginalised. I don't want to see that happen again."
Gordon Birtwistle, 67
After retiring and passing on his engineering business to his son, Birtwistle had begun to draw his pension, enjoy his allotment and take the grandchildren to school. A surprise win, overturning a Labour majority of 6,000, saw him elected at 66 – the oldest new MP in 2010. He is now a ministerial aide at the Treasury
"I was certainly the outsider, but we threw the kitchen sink at it for three or four weeks.
"Arriving with the other new MPs I felt like their dad. I am probably one of the few who have actually done something and knows what it's like to be in manufacturing.
"Over the next two years there will be a lot of big pluses and I will be pleased to have been involved. Going to Number 11 every week is remarkable, seeing how everything works.
"I don't like being away from home or voting for things I don't agree with, but I accept as a realist that they are necessary.
"I've never suffered abuse in Burnley before, but some people have called me Tory or traitor.
"And there's the abuse I get off the Labour Party in the House: effing this and effing that, shouting across the chamber. They have to accept they lost and work together to try to solve the problems."
Penny Mordaunt, 38
A former magician's assistant who once worked for George W Bush, this daughter of a paratrooper worked in the public, private and charity sectors before taking the seat from Labour on her second attempt
"During the election, things like the Big Society were quite complex to get over. It was a stressful campaign. And it was bonkers after the election, when no one knew if they were in government or opposition.
"Previous experience is vital. You can read about running a business [for instance], but until you've actually been through the stress of trying to do it, you don't realise how frustrating it is.
"Some of the most rewarding stuff is the bread-and-butter from the constituency surgery, helping people whose lives depend on it.
"And you get to do very cool stuff. I am a complete space obsessive, so meeting astronauts or finding out Brian Cox is in the building is the best.
"The chamber is very unintimidating. I couldn't believe how tiny it was.
"As a magician's assistant at college, I got to work with Will Ayling, a former president of the Magic Circle, and David Copperfield. So sometimes people still ask how tricks were done. I never tell."
Stella Creasy, 33
A former Commons researcher and later head of campaigns at the Scout Association, Creasy has led the charge in the Commons against firms offering short-term, high-cost loans, dubbed "legal loan sharks"
"To be the Labour MP for Walthamstow is just phenomenal. Knackering, yes; frustrating, sometimes. But overall, phenomenal.
"I have disagreed with the Labour Party at points but I've always been part of Labour. We fight and argue because we care.
"On my first day there was a Tory who came in and said, 'I am the new Tory MP for so and so' and he was welcomed through [by Commons officials]. Then they said to me, 'Are you with him to help him?'
"One of the things I hadn't really understood is it is a bit like starting a small business as well as being a representative, setting up an office, hiring staff...
"You go into politics to change the world. I don't feel any different than I did as a bolshie 13-year-old.
"I have been trying to tweet about the Education Bill, but the Tory whips are trying to stop me tweeting, saying there was a standing order banning it. There are times like that when it is really good to have a healthy scepticism about tradition."
Steve Gilbert, 34
St Austell & Newquay
A one-time researcher for Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, the Cornishman saw off a strong Tory challenge for this new seat. After adjusting to Coalition life, he turned down the offer of a job as a ministerial aide, saying he wanted to represent his constituents and not always vote for the Government
"The disappointment has been the way that lots of parliamentary procedures have been revealed as nothing more than theatre. As a new MP you get called towards the end of a debate when there is nothing left to be said. Select committees, too, are controlled by the clerks and whips. There is not really the level of scrutiny that people expect.
"What has been really good, being part of the Government, is the access to ministers to push policy outcomes.
"You need a lot of stamina to do the job and be clear that you cannot be everywhere all the time.
"Being able to ask a question at Prime Minister's Questions the day after there had been flooding in my constituency – and having confidence that the Government was doing all it could, and the Prime Minister visiting 48 hours later – that showed Parliament at its best. Such moments are rare."
Caroline Lucas, 50
The former MEP overturned a Labour majority of 5,000 to become the first Green MP. She chairs the all-party group on fuel poverty and has led calls to reform the way Parliament is run, calling for electronic voting in the Commons
"I have been horrified to see how much time gets wasted, sitting for hours in a debate with no idea whether you can speak. You are not even supposed to go to the loo. There is also frustration about working until 10 or 11 at night when we could just start a bit earlier.
"Using a table in a café for six weeks until I was finally given an office created a frustration of feeling rather uprooted.
"On top of that, I don't have a good sense of direction at the best of times, and the labyrinthine corridors all look the same.
"As the only MP from my party, you can raise issues and put things on the agenda – withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, nuclear disarmament and greater electoral reform.
"Properly insulating homes would be good from an environmental perspective, but crucially we would not have people dying in their homes in the 21st century because they cannot keep their homes warm. I am challenging the idea that the environment is a luxury bolt-on."
Sarah Wollaston, 49
Wollaston is a former GP who was selected as the Tory candidate in an open primary postal vote that involved every person in the constituency to replace grandee Anthony Steen, who quit in the expenses furore. She has since spoken out against the Government's NHS reforms
"It is completely different to what I imagined. If you are an information junkie, this is the place to be. I'm glad I'm here to represent people who need a voice.
"But it has been a surprise to me how little genuine debate there is here and the structures of Parliament seriously need to be overhauled. So much public money and time is wasted on things that are recognised as futile – Private Members' Bills, Early Day Motions. But unless more MPs make a stand, it won't change.
"It is very easy to be sucked into this mentality [of accepting the status quo]. I am not criticising my party, it's universal across the board. I didn't come here to be awkward; I came to be constructive.
"Some people are leant on by the whips – but more fool them. I don't believe the attitude that you cannot get on in politics unless you agree with everything. What is the point of being here if you are not prepared to rattle a few cages?"
Nick Boles, 45
Grantham & Stamford
One of the so-called "Notting Hill set" of modernisers in the Tory party, Boles founded the Policy Exchange think-tank, worked for Boris Johnson and helped prepare the Conservatives for government before being elected in Margaret Thatcher's old seat. He is now a ministerial aide
"It is a very weird job. The day-to-day rewards come from the constituency work, which I perhaps had not understood before.
"I didn't really know anything about the chamber. I guess I rather discounted it and thought it was slightly ridiculous and irrelevant. It is a much better test of the politician than I had thought. Being good in the chamber takes practice.
"Parliament is an ancient institution which by and large does work, though I still don't understand why we never refer to people by their name but as honourable friend. People listening in cannot follow it.
"Over the coming months and years, our popularity [as a coalition] is likely to take a further knock – but as a political strategy, Labour's attacks on all of us, and in particular the Lib Dems, is idiotic. The one thing that makes us like the Lib Dems more is when Labour is vile about them."
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