Working in Westminster

by Clem Leaver

 

In 2011 I, like many other students, took a gap year with all the hope of an exciting year of travelling and working abroad before moving on to university. I found myself instead working at and eventually running my Dad’s pub in my home town of Colne. I worked there constantly for a year and though I enjoyed my time, I was becoming increasingly aware that if I didn’t leave I would probably never do anything else with my life. When the pub went into administration due to ownership problems, I decided it was time to jump ship, and with nothing to lose and everything to gain I contacted Lord (Tony) Greaves who I knew vaguely as a friend and colleague of my mother on Pendle council. I asked if he might put in a good word for an internship with an MP. His reply was that he could, but I had a slim chance – I hadn’t even a university qualification let alone a Masters or PhD to my name. But hope was not lost! Tony said that he could probably use a bit of help himself, so offered me two weeks of provisional work experience in the House of Lords before the summer recess in July.


Working in the House of Lords has been one of the most bizarre and informative experiences of my life so far. Working for Tony, who has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Parliament and the Palace itself which he affectionately calls ‘The Mad House’, I have gained a unique view into the weird and wonderful world of Westminster and an even greater insight into party politics at the highest level. In those first two weeks I must have done something right as I was invited back to London after the recess and have been working here now for a year. Whilst the Lords continues to expand, and with not much hope of any future reform, Tony shares a very cramped office with three other peers – Baroness Hussein-Ece, Lord Storey and Lord Roberts of Llandudno – as well as their many staff, or ‘The Toilers of Westminster’.


The Palace of Westminster itself is surreal. Architecturally beautiful and stuffed with magnificent statues and works of art, it is like working in a museum. A few times I have caught MPs showing guests around the House of Lords (they always do, as it’s so much more extravagant than the Commons) and saying, “but of course, it’s only a place of work”. For me it is much more than that, and I’m still always taken aback when I walk through the corridors of the Lords and into the magnificent Central Lobby, through to Westminster Hall.


Often when I have met the staff of MPs they would inevitably remark; “Oh, it’s the Lords’ staff. What do you even do?” As Peers have no constituents and Commons staff spend most of their time dealing with casework, this might not seem such a condescending remark. However the Lords are unique in that they can pursue their personal interests and philanthropic causes. In the case of Lord Greaves it is usually elections, environmental issues and ‘anything Liberal’. The House of Lords also has the important role of scrutinising the often hurried and carelessly thought out legislation that has sailed through the House of Commons untouched, by Peers with much experience and expertise in their field.


I have been privileged in this job in that I have been able to develop the role for myself from a limited job specification. From the everyday administrative tasks such as diary management, replying to correspondence and drafting Parliamentary questions to carrying out research projects into specific areas of interest, compiling briefings for debates, sitting in on Parliamentary committees and meetings, dealing with nosey journalists and the huge responsibility of managing other interns. However the most important skill to master in such a job is of course perfecting the art of a good brew.


Though working as a research assistant is a job, working in Parliament is an incredible experience. This opportunity has led me to so many situations where I have thought “Why am I here?” From breakfasting on the river terrace, jostling for the attention of bar staff in a Hilton bar between Paddy Ashdown and Lembit Opik at a conference, to catching a smile and wave from Her Majesty as she left the state opening of Parliament, after I had sneaked in the back of the gallery of the Lords chamber to watch the Queens Speech. I was in Westminster Hall to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, hearing speeches from prominent women in politics like Harriet Harman and Teresa May, as well as the hilarious Sandi Toksvig of ‘News Quiz’.


In retrospect I have found that politics in Westminster is far beyond anything I have ever learned from my studies, and I have had to re-learn everything I thought I knew. Whilst I will look back at my time spent in Parliament with fond memories, my insight into the Westminster bubble has given me much to be critical about. I am sincerely grateful to Lord Greaves for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to passing the baton on to someone like myself who would otherwise never have been given such an opportunity, and who will no doubt be as appreciative of the experience as I have been.

 

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originally published 2013 on Clem Leaver’s blog at http://clemleaver.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/working-in-westminster/

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