Yesterday I went to the Houses of Parliament (HoP), for the first time in my life. I’m nearly 45. I was totally excited about going, both for the sake of it and also because it was to see whether I could bring my music installation piece ‘Belonging Here’ to the HoP later this year.
Before I explain my experience, there are two important things that I discovered. 1. As a UK resident (not citizen, necessarily) you can go on a free tour of the Houses of Parliament via your MP: read about that here. Secondly, you can ‘lobby’ your MP in person at any time. Of course, they might be busy or away but the fact is that you can walk into the Houses of Parliament, go to reception and ask to see your MP. I discovered recently that groups can also organise ‘mass lobbies’, whereby a large group of people all do this at the same time and all ask to see their different MP. It seems really important to me that we know about this access. Also, if they are away or busy, they have to respond to you within 7 days. I appreciate it’s very London-centric (I don’t live in London either) but I thought it was worth passing this on!
So, having gone through security in Portcullis House, I first found a brilliant exhibition, of photo portraits of the 209 female MPs. These are stunning photos and really interesting in their differences. Some women are photographed in the HoP itself, either in tune, or in cheeky dialogue with, its grandeur. Some are photographed in parks, on one is on the beach with a horse, and then there is a group who have perhaps asked to be photographed with family members. What it brought home to me is how diverse the female MPs actually are. I think we get an extremely limited view of these people who have chosen to work within our ‘establishment’ (nice quote from Tony Benn about that!) for what they believe is a better way of doing things. I’d really encourage you to go – it’s free! Tickets here.
Having met my contact, we then went from Portcullis House underneath the road, in an ancient tunnel and across into Westminster Hall. This is a vast space (see pic) with a stone floor, stone walls and a massively high ceiling, the wooden roof, which is currently being renovated. It feels quite like an outdoor space as it’s so cold and open. Apparently there used to be market stalls in there historically and I was told that it’s used when a huge speech has to happen which won’t fit into either chamber. Barack Obama spoke here. Trump was not permitted to.
From this bare and huge space we then went up the steps and into gold-leafed rooms and on to the Central Lobby – that space we see on TV a lot, a perhaps 8-sided foyer-type space. It sits between the Lords and the Commons (map of Parliament here). Here we caught the daily speaker’s procession to the Commons: the top of the Mace bobbing past over the crowds and John Bercow’s face, who seemed to be in an extremely smiley mood. We then walked to the Lords, via the Royal apartments, where the Queen comes when she visits Parliament. It’s all very grand and golden and my main thoughts were about intimidation, although the Lords chamber itself feels very small and quite cosy. How would someone who wasn’t used to such buildings, perhaps hadn’t been used to going into big churches or had not been educated, or who lacked confidence, feel, when walking through these corridors? It was my most prevalent thought. If this is our frontline for seeking democracy, it feels very lofty.
Then, I was allowed entry to PMQs. I probably looked a bit delirious, I was so excited. Handing in my electronic equipment and coat, I was asked to sit on the front row of the ‘Special’ public gallery, the bit behind glass, and I wondered if it was called Special because you get to see both ‘sides’ evenly.
At first in a way the room is disappointingly familiar – just liked the telly – yet it’s the whole room experience that is valuable – the things that are beyond the field of vision of just the person who is speaking. The basics: who gets to speak, who asks to speak – repeatedly (can’t they have a queuing system?? Argos and Clarks manage that!). Where the attentive listeners are and where the jeerers are – I’m afraid to say, the Conservatives really are the ones bringing the reputation of the House down. Here’s my blow-by-blow account of what it was like and what was going through my head as it happened.
‘Wow! I’m in the HoP public gallery for PMQs! 12pm. There’s Jeremy Corbyn! Amber Rudd.. not so many celebs today, perhaps… Then Theresa May appears.. (shudder). (I wonder if this is some primitive response – it was watching Maggie on the telly in the 70s that probably first politicized me). We get into TM’s opening statement about Holocaust memorial day then there’s some questions about Brexit context “the army are set to slaughter lambs set for export” and TM is saying the “SNP is out of touch with the Scottish people” which doesn’t sound entirely justifiable. Then JC gets his first Q in “will she take no deal off the table”.
By this point I suddenly think THE ROOM IS WRONG! It totally encourages two parties. That side vs that side. The politicians either side are like kids in playground gangs: safety in numbers and bullying. And I have to say, the Conservatives really are worse in this. I can state that categorically, having been in the room and seen and heard the jeering. It is very far from pleasant. Meanwhile, Corbyn is coming across very well and seems reasonable. TM seems evasive (she doesn’t answer anything, really – what is the point of PMQs??) and actually, deeply patronising. So, I’m thinking JC is very good and then he stops speaking and I realise his 3 Qs are up. So – this is why he doesn’t get enough media coverage. If he was allowed to press and press, then we might get somewhere. Why are Tories even allowed to ask questions? Surely, this should be the Parliamentary opportunity for the other parties to probe her. Instead what happens is that the Conservatives throw her gentle ball and gentle ball, from where she can gloat about how great and kind they are.
I quickly realise that I actually HATE this! There is no listening, no progress. By this time, 4 Labour politicians have stood up 7 times now and are being ignored. I become fixated on their cluster.
There’s a Q about a soldier father which quietens everyone down but still Labour are ignored. It is 12.24 by the time the first Labour MP (not counting JC, obvs) is allowed to ask a Q. It’s a man. There’s a Tory ref to a Chichester choir performance called Push (interesting to me that the arts could penetrate here…) then at 12.27 we hear the first Labour woman. She has a great line: the ‘stench of complacency’ to do with cladding post-Grenfell. At 12.28 there’s a question about regulating Botox from a Conservative. Really??? Is that what this meeting of all MPs once a week is going to spend time on??? Now I’m starting to ask, who is the Labour black female MP who has stood every time now and is still ignored.
At 12.30 there’s a ‘closed question’ which lets TM show off again. About Birmingham airport – because, let’s face it, what we really need is to prioritise the needs of long haul holiday makers right now. At 12.31 a Labour MP about Brexit and then TM is saying “there were a variety of reasons why people voted to Leave” and I’m thinking – and one of them is the CORRUPT CAMPAIGN!! A random plea to women to go to their smear tests then a Labour man (still not the black lady, who by now I think is Dawn Butler) again brings everyone to quiet, talking about a young man who has committed suicide and his parents are there today. I wonder if there’s a moment when all the MPs remember they are there to represent us, not to jeer and bicker with each other. Then we enter some kind of personal ultra-casework section of questions and I’m thinking, is this really the best use of the moment when all MPs are present??
Finally the white Labour woman who has been standing up every time since the beginning gets to ask her question about the High Street which TM just doesn’t get. She says ‘there’s still be a Post Office in W H Smiths’. Doesn’t she herself value different shops, a mixed High Street not dominated only by the same 5 shops we see in every airport terminal? At 12.41 a Tory MP makes a rather desperate stand, saying “Dyson is totally committed to the UK”. What a joke! But this brings out, for me, TM’s darkest phrase of the day: this government is “unapologetically pro-business” and I think ‘what about people, Mrs May? What about communities, what about those who need support, what about the planet, what about fairness, what about the things in life that are not measured economically?’.
And then all the MPs just leave. They walk out (surely not only because of Tim Farron’s hilarious interjection saying “Happy Cumbria Day” and listing the various Cumbrian delights that will be available afterwards in the Jubilee Hall and which TM could select her walking holiday packed lunch from – which has the Speaker calling him a “one-man tourist board” in good humour). And you think – hang on! While everyone is here – shouldn’t you have a meaningful moment about SOMETHING??? The climate doesn’t even get one single mention (I couldn’t see far enough along under where I was sitting to know if Caroline Lucas was there, who at least has managed to bring that biggest issue of our day into the spotlight).
Afterwards, I met a new script writer who’ll hopefully be working on the new versions of ‘Belonging Here’ with me and discovered she’s set up a nice project called ‘Library of Change’. Then, my last great meeting was with Kate Dunton, who I’d met to talk about how she’s connecting artists and researchers at my old university, King’s College London. I discovered she also wears another hat and had been on a course by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation who sound amazing, getting fantastic ideas about making social change. Whilst in a positive moment about her ideas about connecting a community to solve problems together (I now realise, I should have told her about ‘Flatpack Democracy’ in Frome), we also both simultaneously expressed how torn we are: on the one hand, of course we want to help and make things better and on the other hand, this used to be what the State did, before David Cameron’s “Big Society”. So, we also feel massively defrauded of our natural first callings in life and our time and energy, when fat cat business is sucked up to whilst the rest of us suffer – including homeless people actually just dying of cold. Kate’s aspiration is, at the least, that we should all be able to live in a place where things that JUST AREN’T RIGHT don’t happen: the government should surely also have this aspiration?! Theresa May being “unapologetically pro-business” makes me cringe all over. (Even though business doesn’t seem very impressed currently with her Brexit negotiations). What will she say on her death bed? “Oh, I’m so glad I saved business!”?
So – what do we all want our legacy to be? What are you unapologetically pro?