Congratulations on your election. There are over 60 million people in Britain and you are one of just 650 people entitled to use the letters ‘MP’ after your name. Whether it was your lifetime ambition or a more recent aspiration, you are now a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world: the House of Commons.
Exhilaration, trepidation and exhaustion; you will no doubt have felt them all in the last few weeks. It’s a great honour and a huge achievement and carries with it a daunting range of responsibilities and a colossal workload.
No other job can really prepare you for what it is like to transition from being an ordinary member of the public to a Member of Parliament. Some of the challenges will be obvious, others are more unexpected. Much of the time you may feel bewildered by it all. But don’t worry; although your colleagues may not let on, you won’t be alone in feeling this way and it’s nothing new!
For the past two Parliaments, the Hansard Society has been studying the first year experience of new Members. Through regular surveys and interviews with the class of 2005 and 2010 a few key lessons have emerged that may help you as you chart your way in the months ahead. Some of them may seem blindingly obvious – but the experience of those that have gone before suggests they are actually quite hard to achieve and adhere to! Others will perhaps offer you some reassurance, when things get difficult in the months ahead, that your experience is not unique and there is light at the end of the tunnel!
Time management: just say ‘no’!
Effective time management is one of the biggest challenges new MPs face. Nothing will quite prepare you for the scale, intensity and often contradictory, demands that will now be made on your time. Candidates are busy but it’s nothing compared to the demands that will now be made of you as an elected Member: from your constituents, your party, your colleagues, and the media.
The job is unrelenting, the correspondence, especially email, is like a tsunami, and every organisation under the sun will want a slot in your diary. But you can’t meet everyone and you certainly won’t be able to read every letter and briefing paper that is sent to you. Don’t worry, nor can anyone else!
In the first few months you’ll be inundated with invitations to events and receptions from campaigners and lobbyists wanting to bend your ear about something. It will be tempting to agree to see everyone. Many new MPs in 2005 and 2010 said that they felt obliged to say ‘yes’ to the requests they received because they didn’t want to disappoint people. But most realised within a few months what a mistake this was.
For you and most of your colleagues the desire to ‘make a difference’ is what motivates you; that’s why you’ve made it this far. But now you’ve got to figure out what, in very practical terms, that will now mean. You probably already know what you want to focus on locally, but if you haven’t yet decided what you want to do nationally take your time to decide what to specialise in.
Your time is one of your most precious commodities. The nature of the whip means you won’t have complete control over your diary, something that many new MPs struggle to get used to. But that means you need to be particularly ruthless about time management for those bits of your diary you do control. Don’t fall into the trap of mistaking the holding of a meeting or attendance at an event for an actual achievement; being busy is not the same as being productive. If it doesn’t affect your constituents and it’s not a subject you already know you want to specialise in why do you want to meet them at all? Just say no! If you don’t set boundaries early on your diary will rapidly get out of control and you – and your staff – will drown under the weight of it all.
Tackle the communication/information overload
Getting accurate data on the volume of correspondence facing new Members is difficult. One MP in the class of 2010 calculated that in his first 10 months alone he received over 39,400 pieces of communication, of which 24,000 were e-mails, 9,600 letters, and 4,800 telephone calls. On top of this he dealt with 2,183 individual constituents’ cases.
All MPs are now faced with a deluge of email arising from online campaigns, particularly from organisations such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz. Many MPs complain that these are usually template letters, often lacking nuance and any recognition of their own policy position. Some MPs simply refuse to deal with them because it absorbs a disproportionate amount of their time. That’s a blunt approach but its not the only, or probably the best, way to deal with constituents’ concerns.
Add to this the voracious demands posed by the 24/7 nature of media and social media and you’ve got a communication and information mountain to climb. So if you’re going to avoid burning the midnight oil every single night you’ll need a well-organised, systematic approach underpinned by clear priorities, case management software, and efficient staff.
Don’t rush the appointment of your staff
The heaving postbag, the tidal wave of email and the avalanche of diary requests all point to the need to appoint staff quickly, But recruiting your staff team will be among the top three most important decisions you make during the course of this Parliament so don’t rush into it until you’re sure how you want to organise your office – at Westminster and in the constituency – and what decisions you are willing to devolve to your staff. Managing staff well can be time consuming, particularly at the beginning; but hire the wrong person for the job and it will cost you in terms of time, probably money, and potentially even reputation. Among the biggest regrets of new Members in 2010 were poor recruitment decisions. Some recruited staff who had worked for their predecessor: this has its advantages as the new hires will be familiar with the parliamentary estate, procedure and how to get things done and therefore able to help you hit the ground running. But they are also socialised in particular ways of working and may not be a good, long-term fit for you.
Get to grips with procedure
New MPs in 2005 and 2010 spoke of feeling like ‘an imposter’ during their early months in office. Some, uprooted and unsettled, and without a permanent office and accommodation in their first weeks also likened life to that of a ‘squatter’.
Offices are allocated by the party whips, according to seniority and with regard to party balance in each building and across the estate. It took over a month for more than 50% of the class of 2010 to receive their accommodation. A few unlucky ones had to wait eight weeks and when the office finally did arrive it was often far from impressive, with no access to natural light and a heating system barely worthy of the name.
Once you’ve made your Maiden Speech you may also have to wait a while to be called in debate. Again, seniority rules and, regardless of your past background or expertise, as a new Member you’re bottom of the totem pole. One of the frustrating things about life in Parliament that you’ll have to adjust to – unless you and your colleagues revolt and demand a change in procedure – is sitting for hours in a debate in the hope – but with no guarantee – of being called.
In the early weeks most new MPs find the parliamentary voting process a bizarre waste of time; you’ll spend valuable minutes standing around waiting for hundreds of your colleagues to go through the lobbies to cast their vote. By the end of the year, however, like the class of 2005 and 2010, you’ll probably have become a convert: access to ministers in the lobby each day presents invaluable opportunities to make your case to them on a local or national issue of concern.
You don’t have to be a fully-fledged MP within a month. The best parliamentarians often familiarise themselves with parliamentary procedure by reading Erskine May and Standing Orders; but the best source of ready advice is the Clerks. They are impartial and serve the House as a whole – that means all MPs, not just the government or opposition front benches. Don’t be put off by the wigs and gowns; if you want help and advice they will be able to provide it and in most cases will be thrilled to be asked!
Get some rest and look after your health
Stamina is a vital quality for any MP. Many new Members in the last two Parliaments described feeling ‘shell-shocked’ during their first few months in office as they grappled with the enormous changes becoming an MP wreaked on their lives and the steep learning curve that came with their new responsibilities. The sense of awe you felt on walking into the Chamber for the first time may rapidly be overtaken by an overwhelming sense of emotional, intellectual and physical exhaustion.
On average, new MPs in 2010 expected to work around 60 hours per week plus up to eight hours of travel but in practice found themselves working an average of 67 hours which, six months in, had risen to 69 hours. But of course many of them, particularly those in marginal seats, were actually working much more than this.
Within a year of arriving in Parliament a number of new MPs were quite ill; one MP was hospitalised after collapsing having felt ‘run down’ for the previous six months. It’s estimated that 40% of those MPs that were married when elected for the first time in 2005 had separated by 2010. And among the Conservative class of 2010 one MP estimated that a sixth of his newly elected colleagues had either divorced, separated or long-term relationships had broken down less than three years after taking office.
A parliamentary career has a gruelling impact on work-life balance. Comments such as ‘overwhelming’, ‘devastating’, ‘detrimental’ and ‘a struggle’ were common among the class of 2010 when it came to describing the impact the job had on their family life.
It doesn’t have to be this way; but to avoid it requires making some clear decisions from the outset about what you will and won’t do. One of the biggest regrets expressed by new MPs in 2010 was that because they didn’t say no to things they didn’t really get any time off. Failing to pace themselves, they put their health and their family life at risk.
A friend may no longer just be a friend!
The loss of regular contact with friends because of the all consuming nature of the job was one of the hardest burdens identified by new MPs in both 2005 and 2010. But sometimes relationships with friends need to change not because of your workload but because of ethical proprieties. You now carry the title MP after your name. That means if you have friends who work in public affairs your relationship with them cannot be the same after your election as it was before it, regardless of how close your friendship may have been hitherto. Like it or not, lunch with a friend before the election is now lunch with a lobbyist after it, with all the attendant difficulties that may pose in terms of potential public and media perception. You need to insulate yourself from any potential as well as actual conflict of interest accusations.
Don’t expect much thanks
The loss of family time, communication with friends and ill-health were all real and detrimental consequences of becoming an MP for those who joined the House for the first time in 2010. And if you and your colleagues are anything like the last set of new Members, you’ll probably have taken a significant pay cut to do the job as well. Last time more than half of the new MPs took a salary cut, a third of them of £30,000 or more.
But despite this, one of the biggest challenges you’ll face is coping with the level of public disdain that attaches to being an MP. Adding the title to your name brings great opportunities and imposes significant responsibilities; but it also invites a level of public vitriol that Members find difficult to adjust to. In the league table of public reputation you now sit squarely in the relegation zone alongside bankers, estate agents and tabloid journalists. The class of 2010 arrived at Westminster believing that, as a breath of fresh air after the expenses scandal, they would be accorded the benefit of the doubt by the public but they soon found out that they weren’t.
Nonetheless the public expect you to be a miracle worker and they have no interest, let alone any idea, of the challenges you face in your early weeks in office. Some people think the title gives them a right to be rude to you while the anonymity of the internet accords others the opportunity to behave in a bullying and threatening way. As one new MP in 2010 put it, ‘I think sometimes people can divorce the concept of you being a human being and working and doing the best of your ability on their behalf and thinking that you’re some sort of subspecies, who can be treated like dirt.’ The proportion of the public who behave like this overall won’t be high but they will be the encounters that live in the memory and are a difficult part of the job to cope with.
On the other hand, you’ll get positive feedback from constituents who you’ve been able to help, often in difficult circumstances. It will be rare, but all the more precious for it. Indeed, if you’re anything like your colleagues in 2005 and 2010 you’ll find the constituency work by far the most rewarding aspect of your job!
You may not enjoy your first three months but you won’t be alone
It’s a secret misery, but don’t be surprised if, after the elation of the first couple of weeks has worn off, the next three months feels dreadful. No one tells you this when you start, but many new MPs subsequently admit to feeling somewhat helpless, their life out of control. When we asked new MPs in 2010 what they were most looking forward to after their first few months in office most just wanted a break and a few were honest enough to admit they wanted to stop. If you look around and think colleagues in the class of 2015 are progressing serenely and you are struggling, the chances are, based on the experience of those in 2005 and 2010, that they feel just as out of control as you, but understandably few will want to admit it. Becoming an MP turns your life upside down and nothing will be quite the same again until you do stop. But despite the difficulties the majority of new Members find that once they’ve weathered the storm of the first few months, got to grips with their diary, sorted out their office, staff and accommodation, begun to learn a bit about procedure, and found their tone in the Chamber or a role on a committee, then things begin to calm down and become more enjoyable. By the end of their first year most new MPs have found their niche and don’t ever want to stop!