Fresh news from young Harper P. After the disgraceful behaviour at Conference we thought that might be the last we would hear. But no; it seems the boss has been indulgent and even risked taking his assistant out of the sheltered confines of Westminster to his Weaselthorpe constituency.
Indulgent or exacting revenge? You be the judge. Either way, it’s a timely lesson for Westminster-based staffers venturing into that jungle known as The Constituency.
PS Is there anyone out there in said Jungle who wants to pen an ‘alt.guide’ on what happens to a constituency-based staffer who braves the Westminster hothouse? We are looking for 1,500 words in a humorous vein. Email us first with a 100-word outline to email@example.com, from your parliamentary email address.
Well it’s been several months since my disgraceful debut onto the Party Conference scene and things have been remarkably quiet all things considered.
However it was only a matter of time before my comeuppance came….
Strolling into the office one Friday (my usual ‘I’ve got that Friday feeling’ 15-20 mins late), I was positively aghast to see Jim sitting at his desk flipping through an Argos catalogue and chomping on a Snickers.
“Just doing the Christmas shopping,” he rather proudly professed.
“Harper, you’re coming to the constituency today, we leave in 20 minutes, Sandy has booked your tickets, you’ll be back for the evening”
Shudders ran down my hung-over, overworked, underpaid back.
Weaselthorpe to me had only ever existed as a Wikipedia page and a laminated map on the office wall, I had never been there and certainly had no intention of going. Although I had some contact with constituents via phone or the odd fleeting visitor to the office I couldn’t possibly imagine what the place was actually like in reality.
I envisaged it as a town with an abundance of cracked paving stones, overgrown trees, noisy bus stops and damp houses. Where people were all against animal testing, abortion and post office privatisation.
I felt rather helpless with it all but there was obviously no way out of it; this was Jim’s revenge.
I did, however, find this as an ideal opportunity to use my delightful briefcase, which since its introduction on day one, had spent its life gathering dust and detritus under my desk.
As I rummaged to find it I came upon parliamentary memories past and present:
- A screwed up Parliamentary Rounders ticket.
- An unopened MENCAP calendar.
- A Tiffin Cup nomination form.
- An All Party Beer Group goody bag.
- Dean Trench’s half bottle of Chianti.
I pulled out my briefcase and piled all the necessary stationery inside, highlighters, pens, HOC slips, business cards and blank folders. I felt it appropriate to take with me a full arsenal of equipment, not quite knowing what it was I was actually meant to be doing there.
The train ride up was relatively uneventful, I pretended to read the Economist and hoped Jim would notice. I’m fairly sure he didn’t; he spent the whole two hours on a remarkably small crossword.
Arriving in Weaselthorpe, Jim scooted into a waiting car and said I should meet him at the Association Office (I gather a charity landscape gardener was in attendance at his property and Jim is always game for a good Begonia).
Of course knowing the constituency by postcode boundary does not really help when navigating it.
I had great difficulty in establishing where I was meant to be going, the road names were all familiar but I didn’t even have an address; Jim seemed to have an ‘all roads lead to Rome’ approach when it came to finding the constituency office.
In reality all roads didn’t lead to Rome and I had to enquire with about 7 completely backward locals before eventually finding the place nestled between a Ladbrokes and a hardware shop.
The constituency association office itself was reminiscent of a miniature roman ruin bolstered with concrete and asbestos additions, to all intents and purposes, at the turn of the century it was probably quite a nice building. However, the wear and tear of bitter election campaigns and half hearted refurbishment programs had made it a monolith to middle England.
Inside it was something rather special: few stereotypes truly exist these days but this place was certainly one of them.
As I walked in the half dozen middle aged men who were sat round the bar (drinking very cheap bitter) put their glasses down and stared begrudgingly. I managed a murmured “good afternoon” before making a bee-line for the door at the back marked ‘Constituency Office’.
On my 15 second voyage through the place I think I got a feel for it.
A piece of last years red Christmas tinsel was still celotaped to the ceiling whilst a small Staffordshire Bull Terrier humped the coal scuttle, the Barry Manilow in the background really set the scene off.
The whole thing came together to embody the aura of a pre-refurb inner city Weatherspoons.
Compared with the front of house social club, the back office was a welcome refuge. I was greeted by Nellie, the Constituency Support Officer, who was vigorously washing out a teacup as I rocked up through the door. She was a large lady who had clearly spent a long time confined to the warren of tiny rooms which composed her realm.
Trinkets of party political propaganda were smattered about and a large photo collage of her with various MPs adorned the wall above her desk. There were old election posters everywhere and a positive array of small potted herbs.
She seemed extremely pleased to see me.
“Harpen, very nice to meet you”
“Harper, not Harpen… Harper Pepperwsitch”
“Oh, I see, unusual name”
With that she outreached her sodden hands and gave me a burly handshake befitting of her busty resolution.
“Nice to meet you Harpert”
I wiped my soapy hand on a damp tea-towel and thought better of correcting her for the fifth time.
She asked if I would like a hot drink and I duly accepted. She then proceeded to take the cup that she had spent the past 10 minutes washing, run a damp tea towel over it, fill it with hot water and plop a tea bag in it.
The soapy bubbles which emerged to the top of the beverage reassured me that this was indeed one very clean cup. I was then offered the requisite biscuit classics which I politely declined.
With my dishwater tea in one hand and my trusty briefcase in the other I was shown into the adjoining hall to face the constituency surgery.
The hall was something reminiscent of a preparatory school gym; an old wood herringbone floor completely devoid of polish, several mismatched plastic chairs and a few trestle tables laid out where a broad variety of people sat round murmuring in dulcet tones.
The constituents looked like the cast of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ meets ‘The Bill’. By and large a fairly grumpy lot, though a few gave me a reassuring smile as I shuffled up to a waiting Jim. I guess the regulars (and oh there were many) could spot I was a newbie.
Surgery was fairly easy: the person came up, told us their issue, I took notes and Jim made a tapestry of noises either approving or disapproving depending on circumstance and context.
At the end of the 10 minutes we would shake hands and I’d hand over a business card. Simples.
Here were some of my favorites:
Surgery Case 1
Issue: Tanya lives alone in a two-bedroom property. She would like a three-bedroom property so that she can use one room for painting and handicrafts. She says it would help alleviate her chronic asthma and depression.
Action Taken: Deferred to Councillor.
Surgery Case 2
Issue: Peter is very unhappy that the roads have not been gritted to his satisfaction. He proposes that every road is gritted every day using “prisoners, vandals and vagabonds” as man-power.
Action Taken: Deferred to Councillor.
Surgery Case 3
Issue: Constituent has trouble hearing and would like his ear syringed.
Action Taken: Constituent is politely reminded that just because an MP holds a ‘surgery’ it does not mean he is medically qualified.
Surgery Case 4
Issue: Leon thinks that satellite dishes are unsightly and would like them all forcibly taken down and “burnt to asunder”.
Action Taken: Constituent is advised to have cable installed instead.
Surgery Case 5
Issue: Peggy has heard a rumor that the European Union is going to outlaw the national anthem, the pound, union flag and parsnips larger than 15cm.
Action Taken: Constituent is advised not to read the Daily Mail.
Surgery ended after a grueling three hours (around 20 people all in all) and with the conclusion of the day’s proceedings, Jim hopped in his old steam powered Volvo estate and sped off down the pot-holed filled road, leaving me at the mercy of Nellie and a battered Toyota Spacewagon.
Nellie dropped me off at the station and at the same moment the first snowflakes of the season began to fall… I somehow sensed that my journey back would not be as ‘textbook’ as I’d hoped.
Before too long the landscape was reminiscent of Narnia, indeed it may as well have been, the place was a far distant cry from Westminster. I half expected Mr Tumnus to saunter on by.
My train ride back to London was an utter nightmare. As the hours ticked by and my evening came and went, the original plan of spirit mixers in the Sports &Social followed by nasty dancing as Los Locos evaporated.
As the train pulled into St. Pancras (3 hours late), all I was left with was a perverted briefcase laden with other peoples problems and the realisation that each one will require a surgery acknowledgement come Monday morning.
Despite all this I suppose the day wasn’t too bad; to be honest it was quite nice to see the place. Working in Westminster it’s ever so easy to loose sight of what it’s all about; that somewhere in the country there is indeed a place brimming with irate pensioners… which like it or not, you are completely dependent on.
For, if the potholes are not filled, bus stops not constructed and damp not dried, then in four years time…. you could be out of a job.
Putting time into the constituency will pay dividends in the end, and if you’re lucky you’ll even get a crap cup of tea out of it…
Added Harper Pepperswitch on 29th December 2010