Day in the life…of a Member of Parliament

I wrote the following article for the October 2003 edition of the The Biochemist (for the Biochemical Society).

By Lynne Jones MP

The work of an MP is both fascinating and mundane.  If done properly, it’s a hard slog and work can easily take over your life.  I try to compartmentalise my life between the time spent at Westminster (usually Monday to Thursday) and at home in the constituency where I have an office with two staff who mostly help me deal with constituents’ personal problems.  There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of an MP but I hope what follows will give a flavour of the work I do. The day in question is 4 June:

It was a mistake to stay at home reading yesterday’s papers, as what started out as a dry morning turned to rain as I set off for Westminster on my bike.  Too vain to put on my waterproof trousers, I arrive with jeans sopping wet but soon change into MPs “uniform” from the selection of outfits stored in my office.  The bell goes at 11.30 am for the start of the parliamentary day and there is just time to detect newly arrived emails from amongst the SPAM, check which new Early Day Motions I want to sign (the equivalent of MPs supporting one another’s petitions) and deal with phone messages.  Then it’s a dash to the Commons Chamber for Prime Minister’s Questions and Blair’s statement following the weekend’s G8 Summit.

Tony Blair faces questions about whether he mislead the House on Iraq’s WMD capability, but the Speaker does not call me, so my question on whether the weapons inspectors were given access to the same intelligence sources available to the PM goes unasked.  He has previously avoided answering this question in correspondence.

One of my earlier phone calls was to agree an interview with the German state TV, so I rush back to my office in Portcullis House where filming is to take place and bolt down a sandwich while the TV crew set up.  The female interviewer tries to get me to say that I don’t trust Blair. The furthest I’m able to go is to say I don’t trust the spin he puts on the information he presents.  The filming goes on far too long with the same questions being put in different ways and then they want me to film me in the Palace.  I make them wait while I respond to more phone messages and then allow them to accompany me to Central Lobby where I have arranged an interview with a journalist covering one of our local radio stations who has noticed some questions I have asked about asylum seekers.

I arrive back in the Chamber just as the Foreign Secretary has almost finished his speech in response to a Lib Dem-initiated debate in which they call for an independent enquiry into the handling of intelligence on Iraq’s WMD.   Robin Cook’s comment as I sit nearby suggests he is less than impressed with his successor’s performance.  I decide to wait to hear Clare Short who is likely to be called soon after Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram.  Amongst other things, Clare accuses the PM of misrepresenting the French President.  Why didn’t she listen to me when I said as much in the debate prior to the decision to go to war?

Realising my chances of being called to speak are negligible, I now have the choice of going for a swim (I’m a member of a health club across the road from Parliament) or going to a meeting for Labour MPs who want to campaign for a referendum on the European Constitution, with which I have some sympathy.

The swimming option wins.  Pounding up and down the pool, I realise I forgot to pay yesterday’s congestion charge, so resign myself to the expected fine.  I hurry back to the House in time for the vote even though I’m abstaining.  It’s a gesture vote of no significance and I tend only to support opposition proposals if they’re on legislation. However I want to abstain publicly.

The next debate of this Lib Dem opposition day is on pensions, on which I have a particular interest and write regular articles for Pensions Management.   Once again I find myself in agreement but there’s no opportunity to speak.  I do manage to intervene on the Minister winding up, so at least there will be a record that I was present even though I do not vote.

Half listening to the speeches, I sign letters, check through correspondence to be forwarded to the constituency, then nip out to catch the 6pm post. The day’s formalities finish around 7.30pm but having been away from my desk most of the day, I know I have too much work to allow myself the luxury of a meal and a catch up on the gossip in the member’s dining room (I try to do this a t least once a week) so I grab some food in the excellent cafeteria in Portcullis House.  Back in the office, I make myself some coffee and get down to the paperwork on my desk and dealing with new email arrivals.  First I return a phone call from a Sunday Times journalist who wants to talk about expected legislation to give transsexual people full civil rights in their reassigned gender.  I have been campaigning for this since 1992.  It’s 1am before I complete the day’s post which includes a letter from the AUT about the proposed closure of NIMR at Mill Hill asking me to sign an EDM condemning the MRC’s decision in the absence of consultation with the employees.

The weather is fine as I cycle home.  Sipping a hot drink in bed, my last job of the day is to dictate the notes that form the basis of this article.

TOP TIPS

Though I attribute my enquiring mind to my scientific background, this is a quality that is a mixed blessing in politics where preferment tends to be determined by a willingness to adhere to the currently fashionable party line.   As I am unable to bullshit, my chances of progression from the back benches are negligible, though my ability to expose this quality in others does help me maintain a reasonably high profile. There are no specific qualifications for an MP but you have to first persuade a political party to adopt you as its candidate and then the electorate to vote for you – and then keep voting for you.  Some do this by charisma - in my case it’s been sheer hard work building up people’s trust.  Trust is very important in trying to convince constituents of the potential benefits of scientific knowledge!  The job’s insecure but the pay’s better than being on soft money in academia.  It’s a good idea to keep reasonably fit and your appearance presentable.  Take on good staff and be nice to them and don’t lose your temper with awkward constituents.

Salary:

 56,358 plus up to 20K for the additional cost of having a second home and a 56.1p a mile car allowance.  There are also allowances for employing staff and for office running costs, which I find inadequate.

BIO

Lynne is 52 and has a PhD in Biochemistry on inositol lipids and cell signalling, publishing several papers in the 1970s.  From 1980 she was a councillor and, between 1984 to 1987, Chair of Birmingham’s Housing Committee.   Her last job before being elected MP for Birmingham Selly Oak in 1992 was in housing management. She was a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee between 1992 and 2001.

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