first weekend back to cumbria

I am sitting on a low stool, upstairs in the Penrith Conservative Club, a week after my election. There are more than twenty people, seated in front of me and between them they’ve travelled almost a thousand miles to be there. I last sat beside Ray, on a hay bale in Rockcliffe; Joe and Ducan, had been with me as we backed a trailer, decked with banners, out of a cul de sac, on a Wigton estate; Martin had last heard me speaking through a megaphone, standing on a landrover roof in the center of Appleby; I had shared fish and chips with Isa, Gordon and David Cameron in the Border Cod in Longtown, just before the vote. Now, I am trying to explain what I found in parliament.

I didn’t want to talk about the trivia; that none of us have offices, that we sat through two days of power point presentations which left most people bewildered. I didn’t feel it was my place to describe the strange smell of parliament, the press of bodies, in the airless chamber, the hands beating on oak desks and bellowing voices, the circling herds of five hundred men in suits with mobile phones attached to their ears looking at times like a group of city traders on the stock exchange floor. (Almost half the members of parliament are new). I certainly wasn’t going to dwell on the fact that I was sleeping in my aunt’s basement and trying to run my office from a coffee shop because no offices had been allocated and wouldn’t be for five weeks. Instead I tried to describe my two brief meetings with Cameron in which he had sketched out what he knew of the negotiations between Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown. I was beginning to realize how much the proof of the coalition pudding would be in the eating.  The big challenge would not be so much the differences in policies as the differences in personality. All parties are coalitions. The question is will this Cabinet be able to work together as a team? How quick will they be at making decisions, how determined will they be in pushing programmes through, how quick will they be to admit when they are wrong?

Many of the people in that room in Penrith had worked as councilors in coalitions, had decades of experience of communicating policies on doorsteps, had specialized knowledge of schools, on health care and the daily struggle of creating and sustaining a business. They raised questions which had been missed in the national media and left me with a dozen new problems to think about and raise when I was back in Westminster.

We also discussed a long meeting which I had held on Newton Rigg earlier that afternoon. We were yet to get the kind of detail we needed on the finances and I am afraid – perhaps as a cynical ex-civil servant – I did not believe the Consultants’ report was giving the full picture. I stood to be a Member of Parliament to focus on detail not just to make statements or wave banners. But again and again – whether dealing with Newton Rigg, New Squares, Post Office closures or threats to cottage hospitals – I was coming to realize the central problem was lack of information. Officials, consultants and companies were able to produce plans and proposals on the basis of figures which the public could rarely access.  Defending Cumbrian universities, market towns, post offices and hospitals is going to become even more important and difficult in the financial crisis. We need better access to information, to defend them and marshall the most powerful arguments against policy, too often driven from cities.

There were many wonderful moments in returning home that first weekend from judging the fancy dress at the Langwathby May Day to giving the prizes at the Young Farmers’ field day. But what I remember most is that conversation in the room. It was not just that that I had spent months with these men and women, in local community centers or turning up a hill, to call on someone, who might not be in but ‘would appreciate a visit if they were’. It is not only that they have all been in different ways Cumbrian teachers, guides, and examples. Nor, that the tone and pace of the conversation was slower, more measured than in parliament. Rather, I felt as I walked out in the warm afternoon light, noticing again the traces of hawthorn blossom, the shadows around the beacon, that they were talking about things, that they understood, directly and  – in a way that seemed quite rare in my week in Westminster – they were interested in talking, in acting and in listening.

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