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MP Explains Life at Westminster

Friday, 22 September 2017

  • John Pugh
  • John Pugh lecture

John Pugh, Liberal Democrat MP for Southport from 2001-17, enlightened an audience of pupils, parents, teachers and friends of Bolton School with a fascinating evening lecture on Life at Westminster. 

A former teacher, John said once he reached his early 50s he underwent a period of reflection and decided to progress from leader of the local council to try to become an MP. Following success in the 2001 election, he found himself entering Parliament without really knowing what an MP did! He quickly learnt that each day is different and that the House of Commons can be a fairly hostile and intense atmosphere where it is easy to lose your composure, especially when there is a bank of political sketch writers waiting to pounce on any errors or idiosyncrasies you show. He also said he learnt from an early stage that “you need good knees” because if you want to ask an impromptu question you need to bob up and down in order to be noticed. He accused MPs of being very bad at listening to one another and said they often walk out after having made their own speech, although in mitigation, he did say that you often have to wait hours before you can talk or ask your question. A lot of time is spent on committees and John spent much of his time working with the Public Accounts Committee.

Reflecting on his time in London, he said the House of Commons is much like a mini-city with your every need catered for and one thing he does miss is enjoying refreshments on the balcony overlooking the Thames on a nice summer day. He said it could be disillusioning at times in that the underlying theme is that the government must always get its way and their proposals are always “steamrollered through”. The Commons, John said, is a territorial place and colleagues will come and sit near you when you are talking to offer support. Explaining some of the strange conventions, he said to claim your seat you need to get there early and lay down your prayer card (it used to be your top hat), although certain spaces are seen as belonging to specific MPs, a case in point being Dennis Skinner.  There are strange expressions unique to Parliament and you can never refer to anyone by their actual name but you need to remember that they are the Honorary Member for a certain constituency. Whips, he explained, can be ferocious and brutal and play an important role in how you vote; he commented that they will be very busy at the moment and need an eye for detail, such as who will be holidaying when.

Another plus of being an MP, is that you get to meet lots of famous people and there are always lots of events to attend; he had been delighted to meet the Dalai Lama, gurkhas and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. The day can unfold in the most unlikely of ways, one minute you might be stood next to a stuffed fox, then you are attending a committee meeting, then you are stood next to a dalek promoting a charity!

John said he started off with the intention of answering every email and letter personally but found he could be sat there all day typing. Much correspondence that is sent to MPs are templates that are just signed by individuals and, ironically, many replies from MPs are also templates that have been signed off!

Addressing the question of where MPs spend their time, he said it is a bit like a double-life, half in your constituency and half in the House of Commons. In your constituency, you predominantly deal with welfare, health, business rates and council matters but you can end up dealing with literally anything and everything; as examples, he cited sorting out an issue of importing a Russian corpse and helping a constituent whose son had committed murder in Japan. Helping local people was one or the most rewarding aspects of the job.  One frustration was being told by an informed constituent that the allies needed to talk to tribal leaders in Afghanistan but try as he might he could not get the US or UK to listen to him and it was only 5 years after that they realised this was the way to go.

During the questions and answers session, John said he had received abuse and even a death threat and a threat to burn down his house!  After the murder of Jo Cox, many politicians’ houses had their security improved. He said online abuse was standard and you just have to ignore it.  He also told how phones and tablets had transformed Parliament, with people tweeting and updating their Facebook profiles whilst MPs talked.  Asked who was the most talented MP, he said the best speech he heard was Robin Cook’s resignation speech saying why the country should not go to war in Iraq. He showed great logic and rhetoric and it was better than Tony Blair’s pro-war speech. John thought the Iraq War was baffling and disturbing and the worst parliamentary decision made in the last 50 years. It destabilised the whole region and has left us in the world we now live in. George Galloway, he said, was also a great speaker and the resonance of his voice demanded you listen to him even if what he was saying did not chime with your views.

In his first parliamentary term, John Pugh, served on the Transport, Local Government and Regions' Select Committee and was Liberal Democrat education spokesperson with responsibility for schools. Following his re-election to Parliament in 2005, he served as shadow spokesperson for Transport and Health and worked with Vince Cable as Shadow Treasury spokesperson. With the formation of the coalition government in 2010 he was appointed as Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee for Health and Social Care, a position he relinquished at the end of 2013 to focus on producing a report examining the social and economic issues facing the North. He played a very active role in the recent referendums and elections at Westminster, but chose not to run for parliament when Theresa May called the election in June 2017.

This was the first in this year's calendar of Arts and Science Enrichment Lectures held in the Girls' Division, open to the Bolton School community and the general public. The next event will take place on Thursday 5th October at 7.00pm when Isobel Garner will give a free talk entitled Engineering the Building Block of Life. Full details can be read here.

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