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A Life in the Day of a British Member of Parliament

Thousands Long to Be A Member of Parliament - Secretlondon
As maligned as tax collectors, traffic wardens, estate agents and the media, British MPs’ work and lifestyles are often misunderstood and underestimated.

Fuelled by media reports and frequent lapses of common sense, MPs are perceived by many as self-serving, egotistical riders of the gravy train/scrapers of the pork barrel, anxious only to secure re-election and submit expense claims. As many lost their seats in the 2010 general election and seek to build new livesoutside Westminster, there is little public sympathy for their plight.

Even some who were re-elected may have had their hopes and ambitions of office dashed by the resulting hung parliament and a coalition government. Again, most people faced with economic and other difficulties of their own are less bothered about MPs’ situations.

Local Issues and Work

An MP’s life is divided into separate, but overlapping, compartments. In the constituency, he/she is social worker, local celebrity, trouble-shooter, industry champion, arbitrator/conciliator between factions and universal spokesperson. All these roles most MPs combine quite happily.

Local authority matters are taken on; problems with the tax, social security, education, health, transport, housing and job aspects of people’s lives are grist to the mill of the Member. Sometimes a phone call or letter on House of Commons paper can work wonders in speaking plain language, can open Kafkaesque dead-ends of bureaucracy. A word in an ear, once back in Parliament, the old boys’ network can make a huge difference.

However, it is not a given. MPs from opposition parties may find it harder when tackling the government of the day or the party in control of town halls, but all MPs are supposed to be regarded equally. The power of local media is enormous, and all MPs toil to secure reasonable coverage of their work (and therefore, of themselves).

With Westminster taking up most of a regular week, constituency casework, constituents’ surgeries, visits to school, hospitals, factories/workplaces, the housebound and lobby groups are often crammed into Fridays, weekends and when the House is in recess.

National Issues and Westminster

Out of London MPs need some sort of accommodation, which has been the cause of public disgruntlement as abuses emerged. There are receptions, meetings with lobby groups, organisations and constituents to deal with, either just visiting or coming to lobby the Member on some issue.

Proposed legislation before the House is almost always contentious, especially if it’s likely to affect somebody adversely. Often, a government will drive through measures to solve some public outcry (like dangerous dogs, salmonella, gun outrages), but the consequences are unforeseen. The MP must take account of strongly-held feelings from interested citizens, and balance them with wider pictures about other people, government agendas, international obligations.

Sometimes, the climate of the time and the drive to ‘do something’ can become an unacceptable burden, like the growth of surveillance cameras in the UK, or how so many people can be criminalised by legislation, while serious crime is not addressed so heavily. Even the weather can become a political issue.

From time to time, MPs get involved in own-specialism issues, like education, social security, finance or defence. They can sit on Select Committees, participate in enquiries, interview witnesses, produce reports that shape debate. The future of schools and the regulation of Sunday trading or the designation of winter/summer timing are typically such matters.

All the time he/she is speaking in the chamber of the House, the required Parliamentary language and conventions must be learned quickly and then followed to the letter.

International Issues

The opportunity to travel is one aspect of the job most MPs relish; sometimes visits can be useful fact-finding exercises rather than jolly outings at public expense. The Member gathers expertise in a number of areas, and often contributes to discussion at home and abroad using knowledge gathered on such trips.

The UN designation of days, months, years is not an issue directly open, but enterprising MPs use them as pegs for visits, press releases and debates. The problems caused by consumerism and global tourism are examples of the kinds of issues on which MPs will form, and be expected to articulate, views.

A future war, energy or water shortage has such wide implications that the seriousness of the MP’s role is brought into sharp relief. Even sport has a political dimension, from the national game of football (soccer) to the Olympic Games themselves.

While English is the most spoken language on earth, one of the big adjustments MPs have to make, like others, is the difference between English and American-English as confusion is a cause of friction, which MPs need to avoid.

Family and Legacy

Each MP is conscious of conflicting demands of Westminster and family life, constituency divisions and need to think. Also, avoiding costly and ridiculous mistakes or saying/doing something stupid which will forever be played on TV and the internet, are priorities.

Many keep diaries to set the record straight, to publish their side of a period in office. Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers do this publicly; but rest assured, most MPs do something to ensure a legacy they are proud of, even if few others are.

First published on Suite 101, 14 September 2010.

Photo: Thousands Long to Be A Member of Parliament – Secretlondon

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