My week in Parliament: Tea, Tradition, and Theresa May

 

My generation was shaped by change and uncertainty. I do not have much memory of a sustained time of stability… We take nothing for granted.” – Kelsy Hillesheim, 22

Admittedly I am not a politics student and never will be, yet, as someone born into the so-called Generation Z and living in such politically turbulent times, it is difficult to go through everyday life without interacting with political agendas at a variety of scales. Articles and news bulletins have to be treated with care and figures constantly questioned in order to gain a balanced view; Hans Rosling would deem this “Factfulness”, the ability to be aware of the biases in the media, and therefore question seemingly accepted truths at all times. According to the Sydney Morning Herald “post-Millennials are proving potent advocates for change, outstripping the generation before them politically despite only just reaching voting age”, and, having gained this reputation as a politically dynamic generation, I was curious as to the role of Gen-Z in actually influencing decisions made within parliament – so where best to start then Parliament itself?

Over the half term I completed a week’s work experience in the House of Lords (well, technically it was four days but that’s not as catchy a title – My four days in Parliament, I don’t think so) where I was able to shadow Lord Clarke of Hampstead, a former telegraph boy and postman, who in 1979 became a full-time official of the Union of Postal Workers and served as Chairman of The Labour Party from 1992 to 1993. In this week (four days), I was able to see the day to day operation of the heart of the UK’s political system and examine the role of both consistent tradition and dynamic change in allowing the system to function.

Tradition

Ultimately, the houses of Parliament, and particularly the House of Lords, are fundamentally based on tradition. When walking the halls of the building you are constantly observing historical traditions and artefacts; the paintings that line the walls demonstrate past political cohorts, the tiles on the floor show Richard I’s three lions (a symbol of bravery and valour), whilst much of the literature on the bookshelves note historical events in both British politics and wider history. Ceremony is frequent, particularly with the introduction of new Lords and Baronesses, one of which I witnessed on my second day, whilst the daily ‘Questions’ are preceded by a mini-procession of the Lord Speaker and their associates. Certain conduct is observed at all times, such as the entire worn by the doorkeepers which is made up of a  black long-tailed coat and a waist badge from which hangs a mercury figure; the messenger of the gods. Within the chamber the Whip system is required to preserve order as it is each person within the chamber’s duty to maintain order – a system that has been utilised since at least 1772, where the first use of the term ‘whipper-in’ was recorded – yet this is not to say that the Chamber cannot get heated, particularly on the subject of Brexit:

“We have heard enough from the remain side; let us hear from the other-“

Noble lords: “- Oh!” (A reaction similar to that ‘oooh meme’ – it was very exciting)

Religion still remains highly prevalent within Parliament, with the Lords completing a series of prayers before the public are allowed in to the Chamber, and many of the Lords and Baronesses are of ecclesiastical origin; 26 Archbishops sit in the House. In keeping with this inherent air of tradition, it became prevalent to me that the epicentre of UK politics is still governed by predominantly older white men. Yet, this is not to say that this isn’t changing.

Change

Nick Clegg described the House of Lords as “an affront to democracy”, calling for it to be election-based, stating that without this, the House lacks legitimacy and is not representative of the UK’s increasingly diverse population. However, to state that the lack of an electoral system within the House of Lord’s results in a less authentic Second House is a vast oversimplification of the complexity of representation within Parliament.

Many members of the House of Lords have a political background while others do not. In this, the chamber is representative of a wide range of professions, many of whom have been commended for their achievements in their field; whether that be through the trade unions or otherwise. As a result, within the chamber, there are representatives from “medicine, law, business, the arts, science, sports, education, the armed forces, diplomacy and public services”. Moreover, Crossbenchers, who do not align themselves with any political party, are appointed principally because of their experience outside the House, and as a result their presence “allows voices that might not otherwise be heard in the political process to contribute to discussion of draft laws and in-depth consideration of government policy”.

When meeting with the chief whip of the Labour, Lord McAvoy of Rutherglen, he, unlike anyone else that I had met, asked me “What have you seen that you don’t like?” – This struck me as a brilliant acknowledgement of the voice of Generation Z and a genuine curiosity as to what I thought of the political system within the UK. In answer to his question, I spoke about the diversity (or lack of) within Parliament. In January 2017, men made up 74.3% of the house, whilst women merely 25.7%. At this time, the average age of a member of the House was 69; the median average age was 70; and the modal average age was 74. 40 Members were aged under 50 and 13 Members were aged 90 or over. 4% of MPs come from an ethnic minority compared with 5% in the Lords, in comparison to 12% in the UK. From these statistics, it is difficult to argue that the House of Lords sees much diversity. As stated by Alun Evans in the Independent “we need younger people in the Lords, more women, and more people from ethnic minorities. We also need people from growing, and underrepresented sectors of the economy, social entrepreneurs, and the third sector”.

However, it is clear that a change is being made and it is evident from the paintings on the wall, that the Chambers of both the Commons and the Lords in 2018 are vastly different to those depicted from as late as twenty years ago. The role of Black Rod was given to Sarah Clarke, meaning that for the first time in history a women is responsible for maintaining the buildings, services, and security of the Palace of Westminster. The Lord that was introduced on my second day was a women, The Lord Bishop of Bristol, Rt Rev Vivienne Faull. In addition to this, one of the most refreshing moments of the week was hearing the MP of Stoke-on-Trent North, Ruth Smeeth, encouraging the girls from a School Council in her constituency to pursue careers in politics and make sure that their voices are heard.

Within the Houses of Parliament, suffrage is recognised as a vital component in the establishment of modern political liberty. Lord Clarke took me to the Chapel of St Mary Undercoft which lies beneath Westminster Hall. Here, Emily Davison hid in a broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census so that her address would be recorded as the Houses of Parliament and was eventually discovered by a member of the cleaning staff. It is recorded on the census under her postal address that on the night of the 1911 census, she was “found hiding in the crypt of Westminster Hall.” Later Emily Davison was famed for her historic death at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Tony Benn said in the House of Commons in 2001: ‘I have put up several plaques—quite illegally, without permission; I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison, and another celebrated the people who fought for democracy and those who run the House. If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.’

In addition to this when walking through St Stephen’s Hall a statue depicting the Viscount Falkland was pointed out to me where a suffragette had handcuffed herself to its sword:

“On 27 April 1909, four women waiting in St Stephen’s Hall, supposedly to meet MPs ‘suddenly left their seats and by means of thick steel chains concealed under their long cloaks attached themselves to statues. At the same time cries of “Votes for women”, “We will have the vote and nothing you can do will stop us” rang through the hall.”

Here, the efforts of these suffragettes are embodied in two window panels in the hall, and the suffrage movement is heavily referenced within the education centre; informing the younger generation of the role of suffrage in driving political change.

In terms of the voices of Generation-Z, this was most explicitly acknowledged during my time in Stephen Pound’s office, the MP for Ealing North. Not only had he taken in another girl for work experience but he had also received a number of letters from those completing NCS. These letters mostly outlined concerns surrounding the price of student travel, whilst my favourite asked for a KFC in Ealing North… “Because we don’t have one.”  Here, his team replied and acknowledged the desires of the post-millennials within his constituency.

Ultimately, it is imperative that the Houses of Parliament are governed by change in order to reflect the wider socio-political landscape of the UK and beyond. In this, it is vital that students engage in politics and ensure that their voices are heard in order to drive political change in an environment so heavily based on tradition.

Also, Theresa did walk past me, that wasn’t clickbait.