Junior school to coal face, we can make a difference

Yvette Cooper, a former economics writer on The Independent, has just passed her first half year as an MP. She always knew that parliamentary politics would be a weird way to make a living. But does she still feel the battle to be elected was worth the trouble?

When a former colleague from The Independent asked me, "So what do you MPs do then?" I found myself spluttering and pulling anxious faces. The truth is, six months after being elected as the Labour MP for Pontefract and Castleford in West Yorkshire, I still don't really know how to answer that question.

I know I work long hours, and that there's never time to fit in all the things I want to do, never mind all the things I fear I ought to do. But I couldn't give you a job description for the life of me. Nor is there such a thing as a typical day for me to describe in order to explain or justify my existence.

For example, last week I ate turkey drumsticks and lemon sponge in a junior school hall and talked about the Spice Girls to seven-year-olds and reading standards to their headteacher. Just half an hour later I was touring the shop floor at the local After Eights factory, mob cap on my head, meeting staff and persuading the manager to take on several teenagers under the Government's welfare-to-work programme.

One minute I'm sitting in the corner of a library listening to a recently bereaved old man mumble about children playing football against his back wall. The next I am quaking in a Newsnight studio as Kirsty Wark asks me about the Government's statement on a single currency. Of a morning I could be at the coal face with miners at Kellingley pit. Three hours and a fast train from Doncaster later, I could be sat in a green leather armchair in a plush House of Commons tea room, being briefed by the Treasury whip on the intricacies of the Finance Bill legislation.

But what do I do? What do I achieve? On Monday, in a cool four minutes, I got one Pontefract man's Child Support Agency contributions reduced by pounds 100 a month. All it took was one phone call from the MP and the CSA official admitted to the error that the poor father and my assistant had been struggling to draw their attention to for weeks. Sadly the hours spent on the hundreds of other constituents' cases - CSA, housing, nuisance neighbours, cycle routes - rarely yield such rapid results.

Curiously even when I do get a hit, I feel guilty rather than elated. After all, what if I hadn't made that four-minute phone call, and what about all the countless other cases there isn't time to follow through with such personal attention? In my nightmares I am walking down a long street lined with good causes, but I only have a pound to give and I don't know where or when to stop.

But the real power MPs have for progressive change goes beyond individual cases. It lies in our licence to interfere. Now that we have a Labour government I find everyone wants to meet their Labour MP - employers, administrators, teachers, doctors, the list is endless - to talk to me, to take seriously my comments and suggestions. And of course we have access to ministers at the national level, too. The opportunity that creates to make connections, build bridges and alliances, in order to get sensible things done is considerable.

Take the New Deal for the young and long-term unemployed. Under the direction of government, local partnerships are being formed between the Employment Service, local authorities, chambers of commerce, training organisations, colleges and others to work out how to implement the detail.

I remember well the baffled incomprehension on local officials' faces when Wakefield district MPs invited themselves along to the meeting, too. One grey-suited man stared in alarm at his neighbour, "What's it got to do with them? Who is this bossy woman?" written all over his face. He spent the rest of the meeting in stunned silence as we chivvied and agitated, enthused and suggested, and made very clear that we intended to be heavily involved.

Other MPs are doing the same. The big challenge, to make the New Deal work, is to sign up local employers - something MPs are often better placed to do than local administrators. Many of my colleagues have held breakfast meetings with local businesses to persuade them to take on a teenager or two, and every few weeks we gather in Westminster to compare notes and collect grumbles or titbits to feed back to the minister responsible.

Because the fact is, making the New Deal work in practice has an awful lot to do with us. We fought for this, and we swore we would deliver it. For my entire adult life persistent unemployment was one of those lamentable problems we anguished about. I'm even more sensitive about the problem now, representing towns which suffer badly from long-term unemployment. Pacing the pavements with balloons and stickers during the election campaign, this was the one issue, more than any other, on which I promised local voters that Labour would make a difference.

Now suddenly we have a chance to do something really bold to change the lives of those who are suffering most. The cash is there, the structures are there, all we need is a bit of local imagination and enthusiasm to make it work, and ensure we get people into real jobs, not just pointless schemes. This is traditional Labour territory: jobs, jobs, jobs, underpinned by education, education, education. That is why I chivvy, badger, and interfere. That is why so many MPs are stomping the streets to leave no business unturned. We believe that our participation will improve the chances of success.

Seven months ago, I was still a journalist, delighting in the healthy scepticism and intelligent individualism that makes broadsheet newspapers so essential to a thriving democracy.

In contrast, I fear now that former journalist colleagues will find me earnest, idealistic and breathless. So be it. We have a unique opportunity. Whatever the ordinary frustrations, constraints and troubles of modern politics, those of us lucky enough to be on the Government's back benches are in an unusual and exciting position. If we can't seize the moment now, we shouldn't be doing the job.