Friday 9 August 2013

Working for a Member of Parliament

Bright young things swanning around with their sharp suits and lattes. Having the most powerful people in the land hanging off your advice and earning megabucks - it's a nice fantasy. Except for the majority of people working in politics, the unacknowledged and overlooked battalions beavering away in MPs' parliamentary and constituency offices, this is a far cry from what they do. Except for the suits. And the hot drinks. I know because for the last two-and-a-half years, I've been a caseworker for Tristram Hunt, the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central. And as today is my last day before I take up a post in the Ivory Tower, to mark the occasion here's a sense impression in blog form of what it's like to work for an MP.

First thing - an MP is never an individual. Behind them are the people who arrange the meetings, do the casework, make representations to various authorities, research, and organises events. The MP is the figure that makes the interventions in the House and gets their name in the paper, but they stand at the head of a small division of labour. Tristram for his part employs two workers at Portcullis House, mainly for research and parliamentary briefings, article writing and handling correspondence. And in Stoke-on-Trent, there are four of us. While each of us have a title and theoretically work in a hierarchy, in practice we all do a little bit of each other's jobs. For instance, the most junior office member can find himself tackling tricky immigration cases, while the manager folds and stuffs envelopes. But variety is the spice of life, as they say.

Each of us have a specialism and my forte - as regulars may have noticed - is social security, specifically Employment and Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance. It's meant I've witnessed in direct and visceral ways the consequences of the government's reforms. The survivor of child sex abuse who's had Carers' Allowance removed because the criteria's changed, not because her mental health improved. The man with no legs and one arm informed he had to attend a Work Capability Assessment to keep his payments. The woman who was told on appeal she was fit for work and then died shortly afterwards. When you show ministers the damage caused by their policies, it is angering and frustrating to receive a bland reply asserting the government's position, irrespective of counter-evidence provided, before subtly suggesting that they cannot quite believe anyone is suffering in the manner you've described to them. Take it from me, "out-of-touch" is more than a soundbite. The same is true of the bedroom tax. One constituent, for example, had to scrabble around down the back of his sofa to make up his housing benefit shortfall for *three weeks* until his daughter reached the age of eligibility for her own bedroom. What exactly did that achieve? Time and again ministers say constituents should "get a job". There is zero awareness that there are not enough jobs to go around.

Sometimes dealing with one awful set of problems after another can get to you, especially when nothing can be done. Well known to caring professions, case hardening can be a danger. In spite of yourself, you can quickly jump to conclusions about the merits of a case and especially so where, for whatever reason, early action not taken by a constituent could have avoided present difficulties. Everyone has to have their own set of strategies to mitigate it. Without wanting to sound like an arse, I think an ethic of public service - of doing right by everyone who required help - got me through the cases I had uncharitable thoughts about. But there are upsides, and that is when a case is successfully concluded. The one I'll bore friends and future students about for years to come will be a heavily indebted family who came to us as a last resort. Their plight had left them at their wits' end - the teenage daughters on anti-depressants, and both parents had stress-related mental health problems. Without going into the specifics, a letter to the debtors - the DWP and the City Council - was all it took to have a combined bill of around £70k deemed unrecoverable and written off. I checked and double-checked. The DWP guy on the end of the phone sounded pissed off but he confirmed it. And I will never forget the emails and letters of gratitude that came in full of thanks from each family member. For six years, the oppressive debt that had menaced their lives was literally lifted overnight. Moments like that made up for all the darker ones.

There was light relief from the more unusual cases we took in, ranging from the frivolous to the bizarre. Want to know why Stoke City FC never got top billing on Match of the Day? I wrote that letter to the BBC Trust. Was Tristram aware that CJD was caused by Thatcher's victims ending up in the food chain, Soylent Green-style? And a recent favourite of mine. Querying a UFO sighting over Stoke-on-Trent, the MOD letter we received in reply snootily informed us that "it does not provide an aerial identification service for members of the public". Priceless.

One aspect of my job I enjoyed the most was holding ministers and officers of the City Council to account. Unfortunately, as past masters of linguistic verisimilitude the civil servants who write for the leading members of this hapless government are very good at providing non-answers and brick walls that shut down lines of enquiry. Not so the overpaid managers at the local authority. When, I'm afraid to say, only a minority of councillors are good at questioning officers and holding them to account for decisions made, such work is absolutely vital for effective and responsive local governance.

When I was offered this job, I did hesitate. Having a very different political outlook, I knew managing that tension would be "interesting". After all, Tristram is a leading light in Progress, and me? I grew to political maturity in the backwoods of the far left. So writing "this is Tristram's opinion on X issue" was initially taxing, especially when the temptation is ever present to give your take. Adopting the voice and divining what you think the boss's perspective is forces you to think through ideas you would have previously dismissed out of hand. I did find it exhausting, and this was why I stopped blogging regularly for 18 months. But at the same time having that daily engagement with mainstream centre left politics has been a profoundly radicalising experience. I feel I now have a far better appreciation of what is possible at all levels of government, and what the limits of the state are.

Lastly, for the gossip mongers, what is Tristram like to work for? Very good, actually. All of us are more or less left to our own devices. Nearly everything the office does is self-directed. Sometimes he would ask for a letter to this or that minister, undertake some research, or organise an event. But there was no micromanagement. He never berated staff, nor did he take casework home of a weekend to ensure everything was tickety-boo. Unlike other MPs who keep their offices on tight leashes, we were free to pursue our own initiatives and hobby horses. Fair to say I've written to various agencies on behalf of a "concerned constituent" simply because I was nosy, or wanted clarity on the latest policy twist.

Anyway, that's what my experience of working for a MP was like. Challenging, definitely. In my more honest moments I might say coarsening, unfortunately. Yet it was very satisfying too. The best moments can resemble an episode of The Thick of It, and the worst moments can play out like an episode of The Thick of It. It has easily been the best job I've had, and I commend it to whoever ends up occupying my space in the constituency office. 

If I haven't put you off this is the place you need to go and if you fancy working for Tristram, keep an eye out for the advert.


Gary Elsby said...

'Right wing,Peerage offspring, foxhunting Elected Mayoral champion requires half soaked left wingers with short term memory to do dirty work'

Persons with Left wing moral conscience needs not apply.

Steve Funnell said...


I am told you don't drink. Maybe you should start.

Anonymous said...

Where are you off to Phil?

Gary Elsby said...

As always, information given about me is of a false nature.

I drink profusely and most of my thoughts and ideas are constructed near the end of a session.

'Left wing people's champion employed by New Labour parachute'.

It makes perfect sense for Meredith to be Hunt's new boy, anything other is a nonsense.

Who fooled who here?

catherine buca said...

Gary, you're like a sad little dog with a pathetic little bone. You're the one who fools nobody. I'm quite sad for you.

How long have you been spouting your nonsensical rubbish on here now? Years, isn't it? Is this what passes for politics at the cliff's edge for you?

You read the story about someone who was a caseworker - which if you're not sure means working people's cases - and who dealt with such cases as people who died after losing their ATOS appeal, who managed to wipe £70k of life-shattering debt for a family, and you start talking about moral conscience?

When was the last time you helped real people like this, Gary? When was the last time you went out of your way to do the dirty work on the ground to make a real difference in people's lives rather than opining on the internet about how it just isn't fair that you didn't get a seat because you do politics more worthy than anyone else because you're awesome and everyone else is shit and there's no sour grapes there nope not at all, honest?

Rather than wasting your time arguing insular little ideologies on the internet, why don't you go out and start helping people, Gary?

Do you think you're capable?

Sarah Hill said...

Good grief, Gary, when are you going to get past bitter? This behaviour cannot be good for your psychological health, surely?

asquith said...

Do you read his books? Does it feel odd?

What are his biggest achievements for the city? I know politicians can do things, Walley has been good in regard of environmental issues in particular, though I'm afraid she still won't be getting my vote.

Gary Elsby said...

I consider taking the odd collaborator to task a duty.
I consider taking out an implanted labour group, business.
Taking down an entire council is a goal I believe within reach.
This is a crap coucil led by a labour party of no morals backed up by cowardly left wingers looking for a payday.
I'm ok about exposing them and ok about exposing the choices made.

David Walsh said...

As someone doing an identical job for a NE Labour MP you have painted a spot on picture of the job, warts and all. One thing for your successor - can i recommend (if this is not being done now) gearing up welfare benefits work to include acting as a lay representative at DLA or ESA appeals? We do, and is fascinating to see how easy it is to demolish the DWP / ATOS case in front of judges and medics. This is probably the only judicial area where such lay re[representation is allowed - and it works.

Phil said...

Anonymous, I'm off to take up a position at Derby University. I therefore predict with reasonable confidence that pieces covering Derby's research community will get an airing.

Phil said...

I haven't read any of Tristram's books, as it happens.

Tristram's achievements? Making waves with the back-stamping campaign, helping open doors in London to businesses and local government, promoting local civic culture through a series of public events, tax breaks for energy intensive industries, increased media interest in the city, fronting literacy initiatives in local schools, supporting community campaigns and 3rd sector organisations with grant funding applications, helping ensure the local constituency party regularly campaigns, etc.

Phil said...

The only thing Gary regularly exposes is his idiocy.

Phil said...

Yes David, we didn't do any of that and it is definitely something to consider. It might be a good idea if your boss had a conversation with Tristram directly around best practice, etc.

David Walsh said...


Thanks for reply. My MP boss is Tom Blenkinsop, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and he can brief Tristram about this area of potential work. I have gone into more detail on this on the blog I write for, The Peoples Republic of Teesside. See

He, or your successor, can get me on or

Gary Elsby said...

Nice one sided love in with the MP there Phil.

For Tristram's run in for the 2015 General Election, his unapologetic Labour Group and his unquestioning Labour CLP will begin the closure of Abbot's House (you heard it here first).
This is the only home many severely disabled and vulnerable people know.

Labour will be finished in Stoke Central (as the WM asset strips to Stoke South).

Tristram has supported his business friends in Stoke, granted, but he fails totally in public fights.

I'm an idiot?
500 members left you.
CLPs almost non existent.
A Labour MP openly discriminates.

You haven't got a bloody clue (or how one MP acts on our every criticism-in person).

If that is what goes for Labour in Stoke, then no wonder you carry shame.

Phil said...

Yes Gary, you are an idiot. You mistake your anger, frustration and bitterness for that of the people of Stoke. As a confirmed keyboard warrior who's never done a day's door knocking in his life, I'm sure you might be interested to learn that from the hundreds of doors we've knocked on over the last month there is zero evidence supporting your thesis.

And this 500 nonsense. 500 people haven't left Stoke Labour since 2010. But they did from Stoke Central alone between 2003 and 2010 - under your watch. What does that say about the quality of your secretaryship?

Gary Elsby said...

Oh, I didn't realise I was that useless all these years.
Maybe being voted in on everything was a mistake and the confidence the party had in me was a tad wrong.
But hey, you know best (being educated and knowledgeable and all that)
(unanimous on every position and candidacy ever applied for).
Canvassing in umpteen CLPs around the Country) (in every single ward in Stoke)(for every big noise the party has ever promoted) (and all the little noises)(comes in handy for the ultimate showdown).

But hey, fuck this shit.

Let's get down to what a youngish, loyal former Labour stalwart and champion does with his spare time these days.

Oh, yes, nothing as you would put it.

The reasons for a decline in membership is too complicated for you to understand, but you have to concede your enthusiasm for a group of left wing loonies that saw a way in during that time.
Time and time again you have had it explained to you but you act dumb.
The Mayor comes in to close Stoke down and backed up by 1 implanted MP, a WM implant (organiser)and the BNP rose.

We fought back and beat them all.

You offer no fight.

Big difference.
Bye Bye Labour.
You will not survive what is coming next.

Phil said...


Gary Elsby said...

A good day was had on 'black Wednesday'.

Much more to follow.

Everyone can wonder till the cows come home, but you Phil, know it was me.

I've sent you a present to be enjoyed by all in the way of a new member.
Please refer to 'the worst leaflet ever' for more information.
Watch him closely, look out for the dodgy handshake.

Phil said...

Gary, you very much overestimate your powers. "Black Wednesday" - get a grip.

Gary Elsby said...

I'm sorry you don't appreciate my good work.

Just to show you how much I mean business, I decided to have a 'black Friday'(it was me).

44 Councillors had not seen that document Phil.
Oh yes, they (7?) saw the closure bit, but they (37+7) didn't see preferences 2, 3, 4 etc...(because they are substandard and didn't care to ask).

What's coming next, some would say is cruel.
You Phil say I am a lone wolf but I revel in the applause I receive, regardless.

You know it is me Phil.