Oddities of life on the benches

October 24, 1997

CHRONIC overcrowding, allegations of crudely sexist behaviour, public assumptions that you have absurdly long holidays. It would be easy to assume that academics who become Members of Parliament will find their new world all too familiar.

That change was made by quite a number on May 1 when Labour, far more likely than the Conservatives to select lecturers as candidates, broke its 1945 record for seats won, and the Liberal Democrats recorded their best tally since 1924.

Many of the ex-academics squeezed on to the overflowing government benches expected to be back in lab, library or lecture hall. Instead they return next week to Westminster for the new session.

Gisela Stuart, previously a lecturer at Worcester College of Higher Education, is the first Labour MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston. Her win, by almost 5,000 votes, was one of the first indications on election night that Labour was heading for a victory of historic dimensions.

"Being an MP still feels rather odd," she says. "The serious battles over key decisions, such as the content of the next budget and the relationship between taxation and benefits, have still to be fought. It should start to feel real then."

"It is a job for which nobody can really prepare you," Ms Stuart adds. But there is more help for new members than their predecessors. John Marek, the Aberystwyth maths lecturer who has held Wrexham for Labour since 1983, says that it was much more difficult before free postage and secretarial allowances were introduced. "Unless you had trade union sponsorship, you had very little in the way of extra resources and seemed largely to be left to your own devices," he says.

For the new Liberal Democrat, Steve Webb, professor of social policy at Bath University before taking Northavon on May 1, deploying these resources has been one of the challenges. "It is rather like starting a small business. It is less bureaucratic than being an academic - as an MP you are guaranteed the resources and don't have to spend your time haggling."

He thinks that the "only real overlap" between the jobs is having to stand up and speak in front of groups of people. Ms Stuart agrees this is important. "Every lecturer has had the experience of getting to their feet and finding that they've forgotten their notes. You have to be capable of thinking quickly on your feet, and that certainly matters in politics."

Few MPs seem concerned by the limitations on freedom imposed by the whips. Although Gareth Thomas, who became MP for Harrow West only a few months after completing a masters degree in Commonwealth history at London University, says: "You have far more control over your own life as a student than you do as a backbench MP."

Professor Webb says that the Liberal Democrat whip "is not as draconian as the name might imply". As a social security spokesman, arguing against government plans, he questions the position of his fellow social policy experts on the Labour benches. "There are a number of them who I would expect on a personal basis to be unhappy about what the Government is doing, but because of the whip they are having to support it."

But Huw Edwards, the Brighton University social policy lecturer who regained Monmouth for Labour on May 1, says: "I don't find the whip irksome as I am entirely in favour of the broad thrust of government policy."

Far more worrying for most is the weight of constituency business and correspondence. Professor Webb has received about 100 letters a week, many on hunting, a big issue in his Gloucestershire constituency. "I have had to learn quickly how to delegate," he says.

Alan Whitehead, professor of social policy at Southampton Institute of Higher Education before winning Southampton Test for Labour, estimates that his office has handled 250 letters a week. "People are less cynical about politics and want to engage with their MPs on an extraordinary range of issues," he says.

Speaking during Labour's conference in Brighton he reckoned that he had had an average of half a dozen meetings every day since the start of the recess, a reminder that not being at Westminster no more equates to "holiday" for MPs than university vacations do for academics.

One consequence is that these new MPs miss the time that academics get for thinking. Dr Edwards says: "I miss the opportunity to spend a little more time on the subject and get under the skin of it."

Professor Webb says that as a constituency MP he has to deal with a wide range of subjects. "Last week I had to speak to a couple of meetings on Third World debt. It isn't a subject I know much about, but as the MP I have to be able to talk about it."

Professor Whitehead cites the advice given to him as a young constituency activist by an older member. "If you want to get anywhere in politics, get to know a couple of subjects really well and shut up about everything else."

There is, he says, a danger of spreading yourself too thin. "It is no wonder that people accuse politicians of having grasshopper minds."

That inevitably has an impact on the floor of the house. Professor Webb says the quality of debate is "lamentable". Professor Whitehead points to a debating style based on "assertion rather than analysis", while Dr Stuart admits to missing "more intellectual debate". But she hopes a select committee role will give her the chance to question and debate in greater depth.

As one of Labour's new women, she admits to shock at the atmosphere of the House. "I have never experienced an institution with so much male chauvinism. The problem is not the men behind me or next to me, but those opposite. Some of the Conservative men just can't handle the new situation and at times I feel as though I am in London Zoo and should be wearing a label saying "Do not feed'".

But of course MPs have greater influence than a senior academic. Or do they? Professor Whitehead admits to not yet being sure. "You are close to the buttons of power, and you have access to the decision makers. As an academic you hope to have influence in a different way, publishing papers on issues and putting your views into the public domain. As a backbencher you push the buttons, but as yet I can't be sure that those buttons are connected to anything."

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