A Week in Westminster

Posted on May 1, 2011

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This week I spent a few days in Parliament shadowing my local Labour MP Kate Green. I had full access to Westminster for three days and it gave me a real insight into political life. Politics fascinates me and to see it at close quarters was bloody interesting.

On Tuesday I sat in on my first Welfare Reform Bill debate. You may be aware that the Coalition are planning a complete overhaul of the current welfare system, with a new universal credit replacing the various different credits that currently exist. This was one of many upcoming debates regarding the proposed bill, with the hope being that a satisfactory conclusion for the country can be arrived at. Instantly I was filled with pride at Kate’s performance. She was extremely well researched and fought hard to ensure that the Government made concessions that benefit people from disadvantaged backgrounds, not once allowing Chris Grayling to rest on his laurels by constantly dissecting his policies. This was the serious side to politics in Parliament, a million miles from the theatrical nonsense that ruins the debates in the House of Commons that we see on television.

In the afternoon I was a spectator in the Commons where there was a health debate followed by an urgent address from the foreign secretary William Hague regarding Libya and Syria. The situation in the Middle East is very delicate and I do not envy Hague right now, but he spoke confidently and that was enough to reassure me for a while at least. David Miliband walked in about half way through and was greeted with a warm handshake from Jack Straw. Miliband is a politician I admire greatly and I hope to see him rejoin Labour’s shadow cabinet before too long. He’s too talented to remain on the sidelines.

On Wednesday I had coffee with Kate and David Ward, MP for Bradford East and a member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee. We spoke about Gypsies in Britain, with David expressing serious concerns about their welfare and the space that we can provide them. The recent removal of 300 Gypsies from a London site troubled him greatly and he has their welfare at the heart of his political outlook. He and Kate sit on a cross party committee that discusses their needs and I was lucky enough to sit in on one of the meetings.

Afterwards, Kate and I dashed off to another cross party meeting regarding disability benefits. The room was full of people with differing disabilities and they were all expressing concern at some of the government’s proposed changes to the payments they receive and the new way in which they may be classified under the incoming system. The Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller, was in attendance to respond to the concerns of the gathered crowd. Unfortunately, she was unable to stay for longer than 30 minutes of the 2 hour meet, much to the disgust of many. I may be being unfair but it was a little disappointing that she couldn’t have stayed for the duration and at least seem as if she was prepared to listen to the concerns of the people her policies directly effect. Politicians are extremely busy, something that became more and more clear as my time in Westminster progressed; but when the Minister for Disabled People isn’t prepared to listen to disabled people there seems to be something wrong. If she had stayed, she would have witnessed a brilliant depiction of autism, supplied by the mother a young man suffering seriously from the condition. The old line about politicians being ‘out of touch’ had never seemed so pertinent.

My last day was very interesting. I sat in on another Welfare Reform Bill meeting, which was much like the first as Kate and Stephen Timms took the fight to Grayling, trying to soften some of the sharp edges in the bill that will hurt people who struggle to comply with strict rules. The Government plan to impose sanctions on people who fail show sufficient willingness to work which could lead to rising debt for people who already have very little. I then had coffee with a Labour peer in a lovely little bar in the House of Lords. We talked about child poverty before the conversation turned to politicians we didn’t like. We berated Diane Abbott for her overly self-indulgent television style, and damned certain Liberal Democrats for selling out in the name of power.

Kate was interviewed by The Times in the afternoon, where she discussed the difficulties of settling into Westminster life as a relatively new MP and expressed concern about the macho nature of Commons debates, something that Wednesday’s PMQs highlighted perfectly. David Cameron’s ‘calm down dear’ clanger may have taken the headlines but the overriding air of nastiness was the most staggering element. The Conservatives need to be careful. Cameron has built an image based on being a modern man but his angry and sneering retorts are a clear sign of the mask slipping.

Kate was elected in 2010, increasing the Labour majority in Trafford at an election where nationally Labour suffered a heavy defeat. A global financial crisis, an expenses scandal, the Iraq saga and an extremely unpopular leader meant Labour were at their lowest ebb in a very long time. The fact that Kate managed to not just consolidate but improve Labour’s stranglehold in Stretford and Urmston in such a difficult context is testament to her drive and hard work. Trafford is in very safe hands and I am proud to be represented by her.

There was one final political twist for me after I’d left Westminster. I had just bought a bottle of red wine and a falafel and houmous wrap from the M&S in Euston station to enjoy upon my return to Manchester when Clare Short walked past me. She is a politician I admire, despite her dodgy reputation and media characterisation. We had a chat, embraced and off I went; head full of political information.

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Posted in: Politics