Welcome to 2010 in the constituency. Below is a new guide for you from W4MP. Those of you based in Westminster will be thinking: yeah, yeah, they’re always grumbling about how tough it is out there in the sticks…..they should try working in Portcullis House with the boss looking over their shoulder for most of the week…..
Thanks to our two writers for these guides. If you have any comments please let us have them, using the Feedback form at the bottom of this page. W4MP Ed.
Mmmm, a guide to 12 months in a Constituency Office, where does one start: the calendar year perhaps, the holiday year or even the financial year would be sensible. No, let’s kick off with December 2009, simply because we can, as the year draws to a close. After you’ve done all the partying in Westminster, survived the shame of the drunken karaoke and made a hit with your secret Santa, you’ll get yourself wrapped up warm in your latest-season metropolitan finery and then homeward bound to the provinces with, no doubt, festive airs invading your every conscious moment.
Good for you, it’s the eleventh of December and your working year has reached its conclusion. Far be it from me to say, but hate is a very ugly word.
Meanwhile, in the seedy back-rooms of Working Men’s Clubs, butcher’s shop conversions and under-stair cupboards that house Constituency Offices, breath is baited as the annual Christmas card delivery is imminent. Five thousand of the bloody things, all to be stuffed, labelled and then hand delivered by rosy-cheeked and damp-footed Constituency staff, ably assisted by any number of volunteers who can be cajoled into action with sweet-talk. Any heavy-duty mathematician will tell you that the concept of zero is extremely complex; simply hanging around a constituency office when there’s a load of deliveries to be carried out by willing volunteers will quickly illustrate that the complexity is simple. Zero is a number and one, in these circumstances at least, which is quite frequent in occurrence. What you need to do is try just a little to make it easy for yourself. If you have a willing volunteer force, try making them a free brew and offering them a biscuit, say some nice words along the line of “what a lovely hat, Mabel/Derek/Celia/Chantelle/whoever” and it’ll keep them cute. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll come back again. Here endeth the first lesson.
Back to the eleventh of December 2009, and as the 16.56 effortlessly glides away from Platform Ten, and you, yes you, cast a longing stare at the rapidly diminishing glow of city street-lights, a phone is ringing in a far distant office. “Hello, oh yes, it’s Mrs Perkins, isn’t it? Oh, the street-light outside your house isn’t working. Well I do think it is a little late on a Friday evening to try and contact the Council but I’ll certainly make a note of it and contact them first thing on Monday morning” – or at least I would do if I could find a pen under all these bloody Christmas cards.
January – at last
Christmas comes and goes and, hey-ho, before you know, it’s January and we’re all back at work. And, joy of joys, it’s snowing. Fantastic, absolutely fantastic.
Now, in regards of snow, this isn’t the twinkling, crisp, white stuff portrayed on those five thousand Christmas cards, the last of which was delivered on Christmas Eve afternoon. No, this is the kind of snow that even the Inuit couldn’t be bothered to give a special name to. Basically, its most notable quality is the power to permeate anything resembling footwear, immediately, even without contact.
At risk of digressing, it may come as a surprise that many constituency staff have, at some time in their careers, enjoyed a day trip or two to HoC. We have endured the ignominy of a day pass to enter PCH, accepted the injustice of subsidised catering at The Adjournment or Strangers and forgiven our WM colleagues for their good fortune in occupying centrally-heated and double-glazed office suites. But hey, even out in the sticks we have buildings with lifts to all floors – they’re called car parks. Your lifts don’t have the same questionable aromas though. We even have a stab at learning the Westminster language because, honest injun, we do actually like our colleagues in that neck of the woods, irrespective of what they think. Not quite as much as we like the Librarians and Researchers – they deserve lifts operated by cleanly-shaven men with epaulettes and a yellow stripe on their trousers who press the buttons and say “good morning”.
There is, though, one teensy-weensy-tiny-squidgy little thing that bends the needle on the Richter scale of irrational loathing. That sneaky little passageway. Stop looking blank at the back, you know the one.
Now, I know that we all work for MPs in some way and, although it helps, we don’t have to have a level of intelligence to challenge Stephen Hawking. No. Yet even I know that it doesn’t snow on the proper Underground. So whilst you can trip daintily into work wearing your Jimmy Choo pumps or your hand-stitched mock croc loafers, out there, in the broom cupboard called the Constituency office, staff members squelch around in their cold, damp shoes. That is unless, of course, they brought their M & S ‘Bart Simpson’ slippers to work with them (other brands of slippers are available, may I point out). Surprisingly, during the workaday routine, many constituents visit the various broom cupboards around the provinces and, trust me, you cannot begin to imagine the shame of being caught out wearing your M & S ‘Bart Simpson’ slippers in the office. ‘MP’s Staff Member in Slipper Slip-Up Shocker!’ Cue the water-works – always keep a box of tissues handy in your own little cupboard for these occasions.
Enough of this digression, and returning to January 2010, a phone is ringing in a far distant office. “Oh yes, hello Mrs Perkins. And a happy New Year to you too, Mrs Perkins. Yes I did manage to get hold of the Council to let them know that the street-light outside your house wasn’t working. In fact, I was just about to type a letter to let you know”.
February arrives, fresh and full as spring approaches. Even in our bijou little Constituency offices we cannot help but “cop a whiff” of it and glory at the ever lengthening hours of daylight. Praise the simple pleasures, it’s the shortest month of the year and pay-day arrives sooner. A phone begins to ring in a distant office. “Hello Mrs Perkins. Yes, it is a beautiful day. And the Council have been out to look at the street-light outside your house. That’s promising. Oh, it’s still not working. Well, I’ll have another word with them then. In fact, I’ll do that first thing on Monday morning”.
March, April, May
Dare we mention March, April and May? Unless you’ve just returned from deep space, you’ll know that there’s going be a General Election this year, maybe March, maybe May. Until the PM makes a definite announcement, none of us will be any the wiser. Assuming that you’re working for a candidate, what could be the last few weeks of your current employment will be the busiest. For sure, as the dreaded day approaches, the campaign will become more and more frenetic with, amongst all the other palaver and clat, more casework, more diary entries to be made, more volunteers to organise and more leaflets to print. It’ll get to the point where you can do an A4 three-fold in your sleep and you find yourself looking in the mirror asking “is this really why I spent three years studying Political Science?”
Adding to this overall lunacy, the Westminster crowd (yes, we still like you) haul up at your door with their quaint notions of what the rest of Britain is like outside the M25. Look guys, just accept it, Shameless and the Royle Family are based on reality. Some people drink cheap cider from large, plastic bottles; others smoke roll-ups that smell bad; some women drink beer from pint glasses and many people do actually shop in “stack ‘em high” supermarkets. Not one of these things are in the least bit scary and, before you even ask, “yes, there are a lot of hills”, “yes, it’s always been this flat” and “no, there isn’t a place that sells Paraguayan food”.
Unfortunately the harsh truth is that following this full-frontal attack on the adrenal gland, on the day following the Election some of us, even many of us, will be out of work. There’ll be the redundancy package, of course, and the notice to be worked but unlike many other similar mass redundancy situations, there won’t be any counsellors, employment consultants, jobs fairs or re-training programmes only the breaks that you’ve been able to chisel out for yourself.
Just imagine for a moment the JobCentre Plus staff up and down the country rubbing their hand together in glee at the thought of adversarial and antagonistic former MPs staffers joining the line. So even at this late stage in the game, it could be pretty savvy just to have a think about what you might do if things do go belly-up. Whilst you’re busy working on your plan, just bear in mind the unsavoury events of the past twelve months or so and consider the advice of the present employer: “if I lose this time out, tell the Job Centre that you’ve just come out of prison, that you’re on the Sex Offenders List and that you’re a drug dealer because you’ll get more respect that way”. Sometimes though, it’s just not a good idea to get heavy with folks in the first place. Basically, life’s too short for that sort of one-upmanship. Try to be reasonable, pass the time of day and remember, as some wag once commented, “everyone you kick on the way up” … need I continue?
Fortunately, some things remain constant, as in a far distant place a Campaign Volunteer, on an away-day from the under-stairs cupboard, knocks on yet another door. “Hello Mrs Perkins. I’m calling on behalf of the local MP just to see if you’ve been to vote today. Yes, Mrs Perkins, I do know about the problems you’re having with the street-light outside your house. Well, you see, if you don’t vote for my boss then I won’t be able to do anything at all to help. No, Mrs Perkins, I’ll be made redundant. No, don’t you worry about Timmy; Mr Hardacre next door will look after him. So get your coat on, get down the road before it gets dark and stick a cross in the right place. That way, I’ll be able to give the Council a right good talking to.”
At this point, it could get difficult; on the one hand, some people are going to be among the cheap cider drinkers, smoking roll-ups that smell bad and shopping in “stack ‘em high” supermarkets. On the other, some are going to be searching out new and challenging employment possibilities on the W4MP site, which you rather cleverly saved on your favourites list. Oh-oh, as they say in Twitter-land, you didn’t save W4MP on your favourites? Let’s be positive then.
Apart from mopping up the additional work generated by the Election campaign, the remainder of May and June will pass in a post-Election haze and the jangly nerves (shredded by two recounts and an impromptu set-to in the street between the Mayor’s Wife and several members of the Chief Executive’s family), will have slowly defaulted to normal. Similarly, life in the broom cupboard will have returned to an even pitch.
Now, if you’re one of the types who generally think “I could do a far better job of this, if I tried” you’ll have used the opportunity of this quietish post-election period to set to on trying to work out a far better way of doing the job. One way, in-between scotching the rumours about the Westminster Researcher and sorting out the archives, would be by settling down with “Getting Things Done”, or something similar, and getting yourself sorted out with a ‘tickler file’ and a card index. Normal service (with added pzazz) will finally be resumed, well almost. “Hello, Mrs Perkins. I’m calling from the local MPs office. Oh, I’m sorry. Hello, Mr Hardacre, you’re looking after Timmy, are you, whilst Mrs Perkins is on holiday. I just wanted to see if the Council had got round to dealing with the street-light outside Mrs Perkins house. Well, let her know I called, Mr Hardacre. Aiya Napa for a fortnight. Now that is an interesting choice”.
Get you, you’re so switched on, you’re making pre-emptive calls.
July, August, September, October
Talking of pre-emptive calls, in the hours following the announcement of the Election results, you should have stuck a couple in on your own behalf: one to the successfully re-elected Member requesting two week’s leave for July and one to a cosy little B&B in wherever takes your fancy-on-sea. Nice. Lounge back in your stripy deck-chair and enjoy all that the Great British seaside holiday provides. Turn your phone off. You never know who might want you. If they ring you, they won’t get the opportunity to try out your new fool-proof card index system. “Hello Mrs Perkins. I’m afraid not, taking a well deserved holiday, but I see that another letter has gone to the Council and we’re expecting an answer from them in the first week of August. I’ll mention you called. I fact I’ll write it on this card”. Don’t mock, it works.
Armed with only a lifelong supply of index cards, a decent pen (mark that down as an absolute must) and a large supply of post-its, the scales will have been lifted from your eyes and you’ll be like a new employee. Forget about the wreckage of your relationship with your regular office supplies company, your work will have become a pleasure making you the happiest little bunny in bunny-dom. And, as you’ll have set up an organised system that works, you’ll have all the time in the world to do all those things that you should’ve been doing before. First, update all your auto-texts (smart), then you can get to know all the CAB folks (very smart), then investigate the basics of pivot tables in spreadsheets (pure insanity) and finally, work out exactly how Child Tax Credit is calculated (impossible). After lunch, and thanks to the reminder you set on your mobile, you’ll know that you must chase-up the boss about the Christmas cards printing (well it is November, after all) and then, basking in your own success over the Council and that damned street-light, you have an appointment with Mrs Perkins.
“So Mrs Perkins, you want the Council to do you a dropped kerb for your mobility scooter…”
Now read the Westminster version: 12 months at Westminster – the obstacle course
Added on 18th January 2010