Understanding MPs: nations, pressures and hours

“Diolch Mr Speaker” is how Jonathan Edwards, MP, begins his speeches in the House of Commons. English and old Norman French are the only languages allowed in the UK parliamentary Chamber. He chooses to break the rules. It is to remind himself why he is there – to represent his Welsh constituency. He plans to learn Norman French just to see how the House reacts, but for the moment “thank you” in Welsh makes his point. He does not serve parliament.  With his colleagues in Plaid Cymru, he is working for the nation and that means Wales. “I don’t want to settle down here, I want to settle up,” he told me.

I began my study of the House of Commons on 11th October with this interview.  I’m interested in what is like to be an MP and how they cope with the multitude of wildly conflicting pressures exerted on them by whips, pressure groups, journalists, civil servants, constituents and so on. A backbencher may have only minutes to decide whether to attend a committee, speak in the chamber about a matter close to their heart, do an interview with Nick Robinson or take an urgent call from their constituency.

MPs have 68,000 constituents on average, who send hundreds of messages a day and expect fast responses. MP spend about half their time in their constituencies but the political parties want them to be in parliament – speaking, voting and supporting or opposing government. The consequence is an average 69 working hour week for MPs.* But averages don’t reveal what difference it makes if your party is in government, or if you are a woman or man and black, or Asian or white, or if you are new to parliament or an old hand.

For me, wandering around parliament is as compelling as a trip to Hogwarts would be for my daughter. I will never be able to convey in words the theatre of power nor the drama of ideological contests and how these link to the whole of the UK. But I will try and tell some stories in this blog that offer a flavour from the perspective of MPs.

* For details, see the Hansard Society’s briefing paper on new MPs.