westminster’s crazy, but I’d rather be eating cake in cumbria
The oddest thing about coming to parliament for the first time is that you come straight from a campaign which has next to nothing to do with parliament. In my case, I had spent the previous months almost entirely in Cumbria: walking through villages and visiting cattle auctions and schools, dairy farms and affordable housing projects.
Four days after riding around in the back of a trailer with a megaphone, I found myself in parliament. This may explain why it felt like a slightly disconcerting place. You can admire the beauty of the building. You are struck by a sense of history and ritual but still feel as though you shouldn’t really be there. You feel you are intruding on beliefs and meanings that can’t be learnt from a guidebook. It’s rather like visiting the Golden Temple at Amritsar.
In the first few weeks, the new MPs packed the chamber so tight that I could only sit on the steps halfway up the aisle. The chamber had the stale smell of 600 coffee-charged, hot bodies on overfilled cushions. The Serjeants-at-Arms marched along the aisle in knickerbockers, hands on their swords, and the Speaker stood in his throne, calling over the powdered wigs of the clerks.
I would learn to tell the difference between a second reading and a committee stage by whether the gold mace was placed on, or beneath, the table. I would learn to read subclauses and House of Lords amendments, and became confident enough to speak. But I learnt also from my first speech that my narrow focus on Amendment 71 of the Academies Bill was boring (to a senior Liberal Democrat colleague), irritating (to the Labour Minister) and slightly comical (to my Conservative colleagues).
My office was initially improvised in Portcullis House: a long, glass-roofed atrium with flimsy tables, paper cups, Cambodian trees and escalators, which reminded me of Terminal 3 departures and where I always felt, as I dashed around, about to miss my plane. I took refuge from this by spending more time with Cumbrian colleagues.
In my second week, I walked from the chamber where a man in a tailcoat said: “How are you Mr Stewart?” and politely opened the door, straight into a stranger in the street who shouted: “All politicians are thieves and liars”. In my fourth week, a friendly journalist spent a morning with me and I woke up on Sunday to six-inch tabloid headlines, accusing me of calling my constituents “primitives”. While I was trying to explain that I hadn’t, the same story was being sent to every newsdesk by the Press Association, so that by Monday I was in seven national newspapers and a dozen blogs, and trying to defend myself on two TV stations and three radio programmes. I had been running along on a sunny afternoon, smiling, smack into a glass wall. I was attacked for my attitude to my constituents, the one group with whom I felt I had developed a meaningful and, I hoped, lasting relationship, and found some purpose since my election.
I feel energised, plotting with constituents, in a way I rarely do in Westminster. Last week, in Kirkby Stephen, I listened to four Cumbrians over coffee and lemon drizzle cake explain the perversities of Government pricing and microwave links. Then, over curry, they sketched out a vision of how communities themselves can transform a world and a landscape. And I felt I could play a role in this.
Let me explain. My constituency consists of 200 villages that stretch from the northern Lake District to the border. One is in a silent valley where at night there is not a light to be seen or a car heard. Another has a factory making tin roofs for the Bahrain Air show. We have more self-employed people than any other constituency in Britain, but there are hidden pockets of poverty: I visited a pensioner last week who had no indoor lavatory. People from Kirkby Stephen have a three-hour round trip to their nearest hospital at Carlisle. And every decade, closures leave them farther from a school, a shop, pub or police station. Our communities will benefit greatly from broadband and suffer without it.
The four people around that table had a plan which could deliver decent access to everyone by 2012 and connect most to super-fast speeds. Cumbrians could then consult a medical specialist in Surrey or take a Russian lesson down a live video-link without leaving home. This is far faster than the Government or a company like BT would be able to do on its own. The community plan is about improvisation: sharing cables with primary schools, firing radio signals from mobile telephone masts, asking favours from railway companies, getting farmers to dig the trenches themselves, and asking each parish to design its own system.
This is where I have found I can do something useful for Cumbrians: persuading the broadband minister to spend three hours with me in a car; organising a conference and luring the Obama broadband team to Penrith; raising money; persuading Virgin Media to run cables in the air and the council to open cables underground; and working with others to map out the coverage, mile by mile, across the fellside.
I took a train from Cumbria to parliament on Monday and rushed into the Division – when the voting bell rings and 300 of my colleagues flood in from three doors into the lobby – which is as confusing and threatening as the Marrakesh bazaar. For eight minutes, as often as seven times in a day, groups form and dissolve in motion, with a crackle of enmities, generosity, disappointments and jokes.
I am writing this at midnight in my parliamentary office. It is hot: a small plastic fan is blowing and my table is piled with papers. This week, parliament stopped sitting. I am going to be walking along the Eden River. But on the way out tonight there will be no one in Central Lobby. The doorkeepers, tourists and MPs have gone home. I plan to pause, feel the cool, tiled floor, look up at the chandelier, read the names on the statues posing in the lobby. No one will be reporting and I won’t have to pretend I know all these things already. And then I will get the night bus and pack again for Cumbria.