About a month ago I was invited to a meeting to be held in the Houses of Parliament on the subject of organising for elections. As a long time party activist, my first thought was that I should know just about everything there is to know about electioneering. But then I thought, you can teach an old dog new tricks. So, on the evening of Burns Night – the 25th January – having had a delicious plate of haggis, neeps and tatties at home, I set out for Westminster.
A brisk 15 minute walk took me to the station which was fairly crowded it being just after 6pm on a work day. The 18.15 fast train to Waterloo was running late by about 5 minutes which meant that the platform was even more crowded by the time the train pulled in. So it was standing room only to Clapham Junction. As the train pulled into Waterloo the guard, over the intercom, apologised for the late arrival due to “too many passengers”. A novel excuse.
There is an underground train from Waterloo to Westminster but, being dedicated to my 10,000 steps a day regime, a walk was in order. It’s a walk that always rewards. As you leave Waterloo station the eye is immediately drawn to the bright, Coca-Cola red lights of the London Eye. You also get the first glimpse of Big Ben. There is a choice of routes to Westminster Bridge.
The walk along the main York Road is a bit dreary with nothing of real interest to see. For the best scenery, there is the riverside walk with great views across the Thames to Westminster Pier, the Government Offices between Victoria Embankment and Whitehall and all dominated by Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. This evening, being a political evening, I chose the middle ground which takes you through the buildings that once formed County Hall, the seat of Government in London. It seemed the most appropriate as we are now in the run-up to the London Government Elections.
Having crossed Westminster Bridge, dodging all the office workers heading home, I arrived at the Houses of Parliament. For the general public – the hoi polloi – the main entrance is via St Stephen’s Gate which lies between the House of Commons to the left and the House of Lords to the right. When I first visited the parliament buildings back in the sixties, the entrance was protected by one or two traditional, helmeted London Bobbies who waved or even saluted as you walked in. There were no searches and no other visible security.
Today, although anyone has a right to access the building, the security is right in your face. Firstly you have to manoeuvre round big iron blocks on the pavement, solid enough to stop a tank. Then a whole row of Bobbies politely but firmly ask you your business then direct you down a long ramp to a security area reminiscent of an airport. And, as at an airport, you are asked to put coats, jackets and bags in plastic trays along with the contents of your pockets. Then it’s through a body screening archway whilst your belongings are scanned. How the world has changed over the last fifty years.
The meeting was scheduled to be in Committee Room 7. To get there meant walking through Westminster Hall and into St Stephen’s Hall. That hall then leads into the Central Hall, a large circular space that is rather like the Piccadilly Circus of Parliament. To the left lies the House of Commons and to the right the House of Lords. Straight ahead leads to the Committee Rooms and the Libraries. In the lobby on the second floor where Committee Room 7 is situated, there were a small group of people, some of whom I recognised. It seemed that we were moving to another room in another building.
So, with a guide, we set off for Portcullis House, the relatively new building across the road that provides office and meeting space for many of our MPs. Fortunately there is a, in part, subterranean route that takes us back through Westminster Hall, past the members’ bike sheds, under Big Ben and then under the road that leads onto Westminster Bridge. We emerged inside Portcullis House.
This building was constructed during the last few years of the 20th century and was opened in 2001. From the outside the building design is dominated by dramatic chimneys that are used to ventilate the interior. From the inside, the dominating feature is the light oak wood panelling that covers nearly all of the walls. The wood is a great absorber of sound which helps to give the whole place a feeling of quiet. We were taken up to the first floor where there are a number of large meeting rooms, each one named after a prominent parliamentarian of the last century. As a Labour Party supporting group, fate did not serve us well. We had been allocated the room named after the iron lady, Lady Thatcher. Maybe the powers that be have a warped sense of humour.
The room filled up quickly and soon there were about fifty or sixty eager participants from Richmond and Twickenham, the two parliamentary constituencies that cover the London Borough of Richmond. The organiser of the event, Deborah, introduced proceedings and handed over to the host for the evening, Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, a person with a reputation for successful electioneering. Amongst others on the panel were Tom Copley (a member of the London Assembly), Martin Whelton (prospective candidate for the forthcoming London Assembly elections) and Siobhain McDonagh (MP for the London seat of Mitcham & Morden).
Clive Lewis opened the discussions and advised us that he had asked a few other MPs, whom we all might recognise, to “pop their heads round the door” when they could. If and when that happened, it was suggested we would take a short break to hear what they had to say. That sounded good and, in anticipation, each of us started to construct mental lists of people who we would like to see “popping in”. And so things proceeded apace.
After about ten minutes, the door opened quietly and in stepped a short, white haired man wearing a dark suit and open-necked white shirt accompanied by a lady assistant. They let the door close and stood as unobtrusively in the entrance as the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition can do. Indeed, it was none other than the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.
Clive was now torn between stopping his talk altogether, creating a break point very quickly or getting to the end of the topic he was talking about. When your boss is standing in the wings its a tough dilemma. Jeremy relieved his misery by gesturing that Clive should keep talking until he reached a natural break point. And that’s what happened.
It was noticeable that, although Jeremy’s appearance caused a ripple around the room, there were no spontaneous cheers or even clapping. If it had been Michael Foot in the 80’s or Tony Blair in the 90’s, there would have been involuntary applause. Clearly Jeremy has a long way to go to achieve ‘hero’ status. Still, when the break arrived and the guest was introduced, there was proper applause that lasted for a respectable amount of time.
He then made a relatively short speech with the main points being his determination to involve every member in policy making and emphasising that biggest issue by far in London is housing. In both opposition and in power, we need to do everything we can to ensure that land, especially publicly owned land, is used to build houses that people can really afford. He said that prices should reflect the pockets of those in need of housing not the pockets of the rich and the speculators. All good stuff.
Then we had a scene that reflects the modern era of ubiquitous technology. The audience were encouraged to gather around the leader and photographs were taken. But not just official photos. The organisers offered to take photos on anyone’s phone. A dozen or so were thrust forward. It didn’t quite descend to selfies but this was the next best/worst thing.
It was time for him to leave. The applause was warm but still lacked the fervour that previous leaders have had a similar events that I have attended. I guess, like me, a significant number of people in the room did not vote for him in the leadership contest and now respect him as leader but are not yet convinced that he will lead us in the direction of electoral victory. And, as a party, we exist to win power and to use it effectively.
And so the evening continued. There was plenty of enthusiasm for getting on with the task in hand. The London Assembly and Mayoral elections are exactly 100 days away and lots of activity on the streets and at the door knocker is needed to get victory.
In the traditional way, it was now time for the pub……..