This week at Westminster MPs elected for the first time will still be finding their feet. With such a large new intake these certainly will not be on their own, but how will they be feeling? This question is one we ask former MPs when we interview them for our oral history project. There are some very common answers (we’ve lost track of how many describe arriving at Westminster as ‘the first day of school!) but there are also very different experiences, depending often on the MP’s politics, expectations or background. In this post I’ll discuss some of the most striking experiences I’ve discovered from our audio archive, all from MPs who first entered the Commons between 1970 and 1997.
Unsurprisingly, especially after the high emotion of election night, many MPs remembered feeling excited or proud when first arriving at Westminster, as demonstrated in this audioclip from Conservative MP John Powley (1983 intake):
Yet for many, their excitement could also be tinged with foreboding, as described by Labour MP John Savidge (1997 intake):
On a personal level I thought on those first few weeks it was 95% euphoria and 5% sheer terror… correspondence started arriving very quickly but you didn’t have an office at that stage, you didn’t have any staff, you didn’t have anywhere to live on a regular basis. It was all going to need to be sorted out. Those worries were in the back of your mind, but you didn’t worry too much because you were feeling ecstatic!
This concern was shared by other MPs, partly because before the 2010 election the induction process was rather low-key and the House of Commons was not the most straightforward place for a newcomer. David Stoddart (1970 intake) phoned the secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party to ask what to do and received the reply “just turn up when you feel like it.” Procedure inside the chamber baffled plenty. For example the Scottish MP Eric Clarke (1992 intake) remembered being tripped up over language: ‘The word “you” – that means the Speaker. Now how many times does a Scotsman use the word “you”?’ Whereas Conservative John Watson (1979 intake) admitted that when it came to procedure, ‘I hadn’t the foggiest what was going on’.
MPs had to rely on friends in the party, other MPs from nearby constituencies, or staff members to both show them around and explain official procedure and the more obscure conventions. Many remembered being very grateful for being shown around or simply shown where the toilets were. The kindness of other MPs surprised John Sykes (1992 intake), as he discusses in this audioclip:
The advice could also be very practical: John Cartwright, elected in a by-election in 1971, remembers being advised by Willie Whitelaw that drinking during late sittings was ‘a big danger’ (not advice Whitelaw always stuck to himself!)
For those with good networks, or who knew something of the Commons, the confusion of being the new person could be brief. Conservative Tom Stuttaford (1970 intake) knew many in the party’s hierarchy:
I was very nicely received actually. Alec Douglas-Home who was then foreign secretary was absolutely charming to me… My wife’s family had put Macmillan into Stockton and the Macmillan family were very kind to me.
Labour MP Hilary Armstrong took over her seat from her father in 1987, so although she did not like the ‘clubby’ atmosphere of the Commons and the lack of support for new members, she knew more than most and what to expect. However, for those without these networks it could be difficult. Labour’s Alice Mahon and Mildred Gordon, both elected in 1987 and on the left of the party, felt very uncomfortable with the ‘class divide’ and ‘hostility’ from other MPs. Gordon remembered:
My first reaction was what the hell have I done?! It was like going in to prison. You only saw your family in the family room, and I was in some dank dark corridor, which is all I could get a desk in for a time.
Some described feeling lonely from being away from family, or shock at the realisation that as backbenchers they had very little power. This was especially the case for those who had risen in local government, as Conservative Sir David Trippier (1979 intake) remembers in this clip:
Labour’s David Hinchliffe (1987 intake), however, has possibly the strangest experience I came across in our interview collection. You just never know what you can pick up on the campaign trail…