My time in the unreal world

In the hit TV series 'My Week in the Real World', MPs have their views challenged by spending time with ordinary people. In a reversal of the theme, we sent three members of the public to Westminster
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Indy Politics

'One moment I was in Westminster, the next freezing on a doorstep'

'One moment I was in Westminster, the next freezing on a doorstep': Billy Boyle, 25, an academic, Labour-leaning, with Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather

From the slightly disillusioned perspective of someone who is Labour-orientated, I was interested to see how things worked behind the scenes. My views had been shaped in part by an ex-girlfriend who worked as a researcher for a Lib Dem MP. She portrayed them as a very hardworking bunch with few scandalous tales. Although I have a mixed view of politicians, I think it's fair to generalise that they are out of touch physically with the public and have minimal contact with their communities, which clearly affects their policies. At least that was what I thought before I visited Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat MP for Brent.

It was while waiting at a bus stop in freezing temperatures with an uncomplaining Sarah, who wouldn't dream of getting a taxi, that I realised the extent to which she defies stereotypes.

When you first meet her, you are struck by how incredibly nice and affable she is, as well as very young. But what remained in my mind after spending time with Sarah was how hard she works.

She keeps going from 6am to 1am and I'm not sure how she does it. As an academic researcher who normally works reasonable hours that aren't physically demanding, I was shattered after spending a few hours with her as she's constantly dashing between Westminster and her constituency office in Brent.

The fact that she is not the typical stuffy MP is reflected in her Brent office, which is made up entirely of people under the age of 25. It's very young and very dynamic - and they actually work really hard even when Sarah is not there. And it's completely accessible. People drop in constantly wanting to talk to their MP or discuss problems with someone in her office. The big issues of the area are immigration and housing. One man who came in told us that seven members of his family were living in a two-bedroom flat.

Sarah's diary reflects how proactive she is within the community. She is constantly forging links with local organisations. First, she went to the Brent Irish Advisory Service, followed by a trip to the Asian Women's resources Foundation where she made a speech.

We then went to lunch at Westminster with her campaign manager and two local journalists. As she is so focused on her community, the local press is extremely important to her. It was interesting watching the dynamics between her and the journalists and how relaxed everyone had become by the end of the lunch. Sarah was the only one who didn't have a glass of wine.

Then it was back to Brent. Again, no taxis, despite the weather. We went to the local temple where Sarah was thanked for recently helping them out. A priest from India had been refused a visa and she had handed in a petition of 1,500 signatures to the Foreign Office and lobbied ministers. He was given a visa 10 days later.

The temple was full of normal, everyday people who were given fliers from Sarah's office thanking them for supporting the petition.

The next stop was some door-to-door action. It was incredible to think that, only hours earlier, I'd been dining in Westminster and there I was on a doorstep in temperatures of minus 4C. Not glamorous. We spent a couple of hours visiting blocks of flats, knocking on about 25 doors. The reception was really good. We didn't get any cups of tea, but there were a lot of elderly people who were enthralled to see their local MP smiling on their doorstep.

The last time I saw Sarah it was at 9pm and she was just going to grab a bite to eat before signing off a few letters and making a couple more phone calls in her Brent office. She had been up since 6am and she was still going. I actually don't know where she gets her energy.

VERDICT

There's more to politics than newspaper headlines. People become so entrenched in the big policy ideas. But that's not all that counts. Reassuringly, some politicians are devoted to real problems, real issues and real people at a community level.

'Sunday is not a day of rest: a live radio interview is booked for 8am': Jane Peyton, 42, writer, old Labour, with Blairite Labour MP Stephen Pound

For the past few weeks, I've spent Sunday afternoons with Phineas Finn MP taking a peek into 19th-century Westminster, thanks to the Radio 4 serialisation of Anthony Trollope's The Pallisers. Finn is certainly ambitious, but he seems to do very little work. He comes across as a lazy, cosseted twit.

As a writer, I was entranced by this scenario and was prepared to believe that parliamentary life still functions that way. Has anything changed? I've seen the empty green benches in the House of Commons and heard the part-time MPs complain that the new "family-friendly" business hours make it difficult for them to hold down their "real" jobs in the corporate world. I've often thought that some of them are in it for whatever personal benefits their Westminster associations bring and that they consider constituents to be a pesky irritant. After spending time with Stephen Pound, the MP for Ealing North, my negative impressions of a backbencher's work ethic have been proved spectacularly wrong.

Mr Pound is, he says, a Blair Babe - he entered Parliament in 1997. When I joined him he had already met with a group of school headteachers in Ealing, seen a group of constituents - Iraqi doctors trying to get General Medical Council accreditation - addressed 100 civil servants in Whitehall, and spent lunchtime catching up on the previous day's post. I sat in on a Standing Committee meeting where he was a government representative for the Gender Recognition Bill (transsexuals would be issued with new birth certificates to reflect their changed gender).

How anyone stays awake in those meetings is a miracle. Afterwards we walked through the gloomy gothic corridors of Parliament and into the light of Portcullis House opposite for an address by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, to a group of London MPs about investment in the capital's infrastructure.

When it was over, Mr Pound had a few quick hellos with colleagues before he was off again - this time back to his office for a couple of hours to catch up on business before leaving for Ealing and two hours of meetings with constituents. (By the time he went home he would have worked at least a 13-hour day.)

Steve Pound's schedule for Friday, Saturday and Sunday is packed: yesterday he attended the Commons to support a private member's Bill, and held a two-hour surgery in his constituency followed by three home visits to disabled constituents. Today he is handing out judo school awards, then on to a church committee meeting, followed by ribbon-cutting at a local jumble sale and a visit with a Scouts pack. Tonight he is a guest at a charity auction.

Sunday will be no day of rest - a live radio interview is booked for 8am, and in the afternoon, Mr Pound is due to travel to Brussels for an EU meeting.

I couldn't believe his workload. I asked him: "Are you always this busy?" "Yes and often busier," he replied. But he appears to thrive on his work, and enjoys it. I came away from my day with Steve Pound amazed at how demanding and time consuming his job is. To keep on top of all the constituency issues and attend to parliamentary business as he does takes dedication. Next time I write to my MP I shall picture an in-box similar to Steve Pound's, and if I don't receive a reply, I'll understand why.

VERDICT

Taxpayers are definitely getting their money's worth with Steve Pound. Shadowing him for a few hours has made me realise how hard some MPs work.

'It almost made me want to go into politics': Mary Allen, 52, management coach, left-of-centre, with Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger

After only a few hours shadowing the Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger around the House of Commons, I was surprised to find myself asking him why he thought MPs are held in contempt by so many people.

He talks a little about sleaze stories and then pauses. "I think sometimes people feel that MPs almost regard themselves as above the law. As if it's okay for us to tell other people what to do, but we don't necessarily have to do it ourselves."

Nothing could be further from the truth about Mr Liddell-Grainger himself. As elected representative for Bridgwater, he is hard-working and thoughtful, and takes his job very seriously indeed. "It's a job, just like any other. Yes, the hours are long, and I work six days a week, but it's important. I want to do it as well as I can."

Before I spent my day in Parliament, I thought most MPs were interested only in themselves, and as a left-of-centre arts-biased person, I thought we would have our differences.

I met Mr Liddell-Grainger in Portcullis House, in Westminster, several storeys of offices clustered around a soaring atrium and a collection of coffee bars. With barely time to introduce ourselves, we are into his first meeting of the day, the Select Committee for Public Administration. Two academics and a journalist are being quizzed about the honours system, a mixture of erudition, humour and tough questioning.

An hour there, and then off to the House of Commons for oral questions to Margaret Beckett on a range of agricultural and environmental issues. My man asks about the reclassification of yoghurt proposed by the EU. Not exactly the glamorous end of national policy-making, but when I talk to him about it afterwards he explains the impact that the proposals could have on one of the largest businesses in his constituency.

Even with only a few MPs on the benches there is still a certain amount of pointless-seeming heckling, largely from the Labour members. Mr Liddell-Grainger explains why the benches are a certain distance apart (so that MPs were out of reach of each other's swords). I wonder why, given all the modernisation, the Speaker doesn't enforce a greater degree of decorum, but apparently this would be attacking one tradition too far.

Then it's back to his office to collect some questions, and down to the Table Office to put them in.

All the time he is doing business: conversations in the corridor with other MPs, talking on his mobile with his secretary, a detour to the library for background information on another constituency matter.

When we finally sit down for a quick cup of tea, I ask him why there had been so few MPs on the benches, not just for the agriculture and environment questions in the morning but for the aviation debate in the afternoon.

"There's so much to get through. I'm on three select committees, several all-party committees, I'm constantly asking myself what is the best way to spend the next hour."

It is also a juggling act between constituency demands and national issues. We talk about pensions, sustainable energy and agricultural policy, and each time he focuses the national debate through local concerns. The same question comes up when I ask him about his own parliamentary ambitions. "It's difficult. Yes, I'd love to be responsible for a major area of national policy. But I wouldn't want to do so at the expense of my constituents."

There's been a lot in the press about how workloads have increased in the past few years, particularly in the public sector, often as a result of demands made by the Government. Judging by Mr Liddell-Grainger, the same has happened to MPs. But at least one of them isn't complaining about it. "If you don't want to put in the hours, don't become an MP. It's a privilege to do this job. I could not imagine anything more interesting or more rewarding."

VERDICT

I believe him. At one point I am astonished to hear myself say that watching him work almost makes me want to go into politics. Thankfully that passes as soon as I leave the House, but I remain impressed at the demands of the job and the way that at least one MP rises to meet them.

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