Can British politicians win back our respect?

Christina Patterson meets backbench MP Stephen Lloyd who thinks we should give them another chance.

Christina Patterson
Saturday 10 December 2011 01:00

It's sometimes a comfort to know that there's one group of people who are distrusted almost as much as journalists. It's just a shame that that group is the one that makes the decisions that shape so many areas of our lives. In a recent poll, conducted by ComRes for the think-thank Theos, only 33 per cent of the population thought that most politicians were "decent and honest". More than 40 per cent thought that politicians had "lower personal moral standards than ordinary members of the public". The figures for journalists were 27 and 50. No wonder both journalists and politicians have been known to like a drink.

Journalists have never been top of anyone's list of selfless contributors to the social good. But for politicians, it has been a fall from grace. There have been times – think Churchill, Macmillan and even Margaret Thatcher – when they've been respected. Not, it seems, any more. It's not just the broken promises. There will always be, in a world where people campaign in poetry (or soundbites) and govern in prose, broken promises. It's not just the lies, or the sulks, or the squabbles. It isn't even the 'friends' who turn out to be lobbyists, or the duck houses and bath plugs and biscuits. It's also the thing that suddenly seemed to happen that meant that the people who worked in politics appeared to have come off a production line for politicians, all speaking a special language, and all looking, and sounding, the same.

So when I got an e-mail, in response to a column I'd written, from an MP I'd never heard of, written in what appeared to be English, and mentioning a "godawful statistic" (to do with children growing up in workless households) which he said had got him "back into politics", I was intrigued. I thought that someone going "back into" politics probably hadn't spent his kindergarten years planning his PPE at Oxford, then his years as a special adviser, his safe seat, his cabinet seat, and his victory speech on the steps of Number 10. And I figured that someone who had done it because he was worrying about children he'd never met might not be someone who had wanted the taxpayer to pay for his bath plugs. I thought it might be interesting to meet him. I suggested a cup of tea; he suggested a day in Westminster, and a day in his constituency.

When you walk through the revolving doors that get you into Portcullis House, and are frisked and searched and snapped for a pass you have to hang around your neck, you can't help feeling a little bit important. Everyone else seems to feel it, too. All around you, young men in suits their mums might well have bought them are marching up and down. But Stephen Lloyd, the MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon, looks as though he has bought his own suit. He doesn't have that pasty look that makes you worry that some politicians never go outside. He looks rosy-cheeked, and nicely padded, and cheerful.

"I was a door-knocker, and activist for Labour," he tells me, over a cup of coffee in a foyer that looks and feels like a posher Stansted airport. "I was just involved with the local party, but I was very interested. But I've never been a left-winger, so I went SDP. I completely stopped for 20 years, to get on with my life. I thought, 'I've got to earn a living now, get married, get divorced'. I was losing my temper with the TV one day, and realised I was turning into one of those demented people at the bar who says the world has gone to the dogs, so I thought, 'Are you going to do anything about it?'."

It's hard not to warm to someone who tosses a "get divorced" into their life to-do list, and who, I soon discover, litters their speech with the kind of words that makes a journalist feel at home. And who, when he asked himself the above question, answered it by remortgaging twice, cashing in his pension and knocking on 20,000 doors. He stood as the Lib Dem candidate in Beaconsfield in 2001, but "got stuffed" because "it's a non-winnable seat". He ran again, for Eastbourne, last year. It's just as well he won, because he was down to his last £1,800. "I mean max on credit cards," he says, "everything".

In the years between the Labour door-knocking and the Lib Dem door-knocking, he worked with disability charities, and in business. He knows, he says, a lot about deafness, because he's "hard of hearing" – he wears a hearing aid and lip-reads – and a lot about blindness, because he lost his sight for six months in his twenties, and a lot about mental health, because his mother "was bipolar". He grew up in Mombasa, Kenya, and says that what drives him is "equality and fairness". But he thinks that Labour 'killed with kindness' in what he sees as its encouragement of welfare dependency, and that the best way to tackle inequality is through work. So perhaps it's not surprising that the big themes in the day ahead seem to be disability, and work.

Stephen Lloyd's first appointment of the day is a select committee on Work and Pensions. It takes place in a room with green carpet, and green chairs. On the back wall, there are pictures of leaves, which seem to have been designed to be soothing. As the 'witnesses' – two academics, the head of a think-tank, and someone from the Citizens Advice Bureau – begin talking, about the new benefit for people with disabilities that will replace the old benefit for people with disabilities, and the new rules, and the new criteria, and the effects they might, or might not, have, I find my gaze drifting over to the leaves, and I begin to understand why Rupert Murdoch might have seemed a bit dopey at his own select committee appearance. But when I manage to wrench it back from the leaves to the witnesses, and the group of MPs who are sitting in a horse-shoe shape around them asking questions, I'm impressed. The witnesses certainly know what they're talking about, but so, more surprisingly, do the MPs. They ask good questions, and they seem to be interested in the answers. When Glenda Jackson suggests a mass advertising campaign, so that more people claim benefits, when the reforms are meant to be about saving money, I'm tempted to laugh, but no one else seems to think it's funny. But at the end of the session, when I glance at my scrawled notes, dotted with figures and detailed arguments, I can't help thinking that what I've seen, underneath those soothing leaves, might well be democracy at its best.

I don't, I'm afraid, have quite the same feeling in the press gallery in the House of Commons. The first shock, when the Speaker announces the start of Prime Minister's Questions, is the noise. You hear it on the telly, of course, but it's so much louder in what I suppose we must call real life. People look shinier, and smarter, and bigger. When you see David Cameron leaning on the despatch box with what you could only call 'languid ease', you see what it really means to be 'born to rule'. When you hear the kinds of things that make the MPs laugh, very, very loudly, you wonder if they're drunk. It feels to me like a works outing, but one where everyone's only pretending to have fun.

"Bloody awful, isn't it?" says Stephen Lloyd when we meet in the foyer afterwards. "Some people love it," he says, "but I don't." What he does love, and you can see why, is the palace of Westminster, which is very grand, with its wood panels, carvings, and paintings. He likes its restaurants, too, and often invites constituents up for lunch. Today, he's having lunch with Keith and Wendy. Over grilled salmon and a glass of wine, he tells them a bit more about why he went into politics. He talks about the apprenticeships he's setting up in Eastbourne, and how he ran a scheme called '100 apprentices in 100 days', and managed to get 181. He also asks them about their children, their children's schools, and their work.

His day, I see from his schedule, is planned to the minute, so we wave goodbye to Keith and Wendy, and then do what he calls a "walk through" at an "MP Disability Dialogue", which is meant to "increase the representation of disabled people in political life". I meet a woman who has been doing a report on disability and employment, but there's only time for a brief chat before we go back to Portcullis House for a session on a "disability equality online tool". Then it's back to his office for a cup of tea, which he makes.

On his desk, there's a massive pile of letters, drafted by his researcher, and waiting to be signed. He gets, he says, about 350 letters, and about 400 e-mails, a week. He tries, he says, to get through the London replies on a Thursday, and the Eastbourne ones on a Sunday morning. On weekdays, he starts at about 9am, and finishes at about 11pm. On Fridays and Saturdays, he does meetings and surgeries in his constituency, and on Sundays he'll go to local events. I'm beginning to wonder if his partner ever sees him. "Oh yes!" he says. "Every six or seven weeks, I take a weekend off."

He tells me that he's trying to set up a skills bank in Eastbourne which might, for example, offer free legal aid in return for painting and decorating. "If you're in the shit," he explains, "one of the hardest things to be in receipt of is charity. I've been unemployed. I know," he says, "what it's like." But it's time to move again – this time to a magnificent room in the House of Commons for a session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering. It is, I see from the agenda, set to last for an hour and a half. I'm not all that sorry that I have to leave before it ends. Building a Big Society, I'm discovering, can leave you quite tired.

Three weeks later, when I have to get up much, much earlier than usual on a Saturday in order to get to Eastbourne by 10am, I feel even more tired. The children, at the 'Little Kickers' event at Cavendish School, clearly aren't. So scrumptious in their football strip that even I (who hate all sport) could scoop them up and eat them, these tiny tots are marching around in circles carrying plastic cones and learning to kick balls. It is, apparently, the first birthday of this company which uses football "as a fun forum to instil in children a little extra confidence". Judging from the volume of the voices in the room, it's working extremely well.

When we head out to the car, for the next meeting, disaster strikes. "You've got a flat tyre!" says a woman climbing into the car next to ours. Stephen Lloyd pulls a face. "Oh bugger!" But when he calls the RAC, he doesn't tell the operator that he's busy, or important. He uses the time spent waiting to call, on speakerphone, the businesswoman he was meant to meet. He gives her detailed advice about local links she could make to help her business grow. She seems to end the phone call happy.

Once the RAC man turns up and does his stuff, we're on our way. Not, this time, to the corridors of power, but to the aisles of Asda. Lloyd holds at least half of his surgeries in supermarkets, shopping centres and cafés. Today, he is booked in for five. The first is with a woman whose children have been taken into care. The second is with a man who is having problems with his pension. The third is with a mature student who's struggling with her rent. The fourth is with a couple who are having problems with their landlord, and the fifth is with an unemployed woman who wants a grant to start a B&B. The cases aren't all completely straightforward, but Lloyd is, in each case, patient, practical and polite.

There's no time for lunch before heading off to the Naval Club, which is trying hard to get new members to replace the ones who are dying off. It feels like the kind of working men's club you hardly see any more: cosy, plastered with memorabilia, and very friendly. Lloyd draws the tickets for the meat raffle and, once the sirloin and the sausages have been handed out, it's time to go again, this time to his office.

From the outside, it looks like something out of Toytown. The address – 100, Seaside Road – sounds like something out of Toytown, too. Inside, it feels a bit like a beach hut that's been split in two. The yellow half is the local Lib Dem office. The green half is the Parliamentary office, used for meetings with constituents. And here, after a few minutes, they come: two women running an arts project for people with Alzheimers and dementia. They want to know how to get more funding. Lloyd, who has spent most of the day talking about funding, offers yet more ideas.

"I know I'm never going to lead the party and take over the world," he tells me, as he drives me to the station, "but that means that all those energies that would be concentrated on climbing the pole are here. The thing I can do is help transform the economy and grow Eastbourne. So," he says, "it sets you free."

Does it? Does it really set you free? Some people would say that doing at least six 12-hour days a week (he still has a Black History Month celebration, and a musical by local children to go to) isn't what they'd call freedom. They'd say that an awful lot of what he does looks like being a very public social worker, but one without much in the way of a budget, or even all that much power. But after spending two days with an MP who never thought he'd be an MP, and who never thought his party would be in government, and who knows what it's like to lose a job, and see a business go "tits up", and what it's like to have health problems, and a disability, and who risked every single penny he owned for the chance to make some people's lives a little bit better, I think I'd say that a political system that can produce elected representatives like this may well be as good as it gets.

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