Earlier this week, I went to the Houses of Parliament to lobby my MP. Here’s what happened.
As far as democratic participation goes, I’m lazy. The most involved I ever got was back in secondary school when I was elected to be in the student council. I stopped going when the headmaster denied my motion to get the school to buy better quality toilet paper. ‘If democracy isn’t able to stop me from feeling like I’m wiping my arse with an angle grinder,’ I thought, ‘then sod democracy’.
Nowadays I’m a bit more engaged. I vote in general elections and I’ve signed some of those petitions that automatically email your local MP, but that’s about it.
Then the Infrastructure Bill came along. It’s a bewilderingly broad piece of legislation covering a number of subjects, including:
- Giving companies the right to drill under private property without permission .
- Allowing said companies to dump substances underground . This clause was added as a last minute amendment, and I can’t help but think of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer tries to solve Springfield’s trash problem by burying it all.
- Making it a legal duty for governments to maximise petroleum extraction .
- Removing the requirement for the British Transport Police to have their Police ID on them at all times .
- Making it easier to sell off public land to private companies .
- Reclassification of non-native animal species, giving land owners the right to kill barn owls 
Look at that owl. With its beady little owl eyes. Somehow threatening our infrastructure. Makes you want to cull the fuck out of it. (Image source: FlyBirdsOfPrey.co.uk)
It’s the underground drilling bits that bothered me, especially as my parents live in the ‘desolate’ north east— the area that will bear the brunt of the push for fracking. The threats to local water supplies, not to mention drilling companies being free to dump any old substance under there, doesn’t fill me with hope.
A group of environmental campaigners decided to facilitate (they corrected me when I referred to them as ‘organisers’) a mass lobbying of MPs. I had no idea, but you can just turn up at the Houses of Parliament and ask to speak to your MP. You then wait in the lobby until the MP is able to speak to you. Hence the term ‘lobbying’.
Usually, I will only wear a suit if the occasion fits into one of three categories: weddings, funerals, or bollockings. After my girlfriend made the point that I wouldn’t be taken seriously in my Beastie Boys tee, I decided to put on my blue suit. I then spent the rest of the day worrying that people were thinking that I must be the Torymaster General or something.
I had been expecting to be treated like a nuisance getting in the way of government. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The police officer guarding the public entrance was courteous and told me what to do. I then passed through Parliament’s airport-style security. Once the officers were happy that I wasn’t packing any blades, gunpowder, or UKIP leaflets to hand to wavering Conservative MPs, I was given a guest pass.
This is the fountain in the courtyard. Sorry for the blurry photos. When I take photos on my phone they are always terrible. My best guess is that there’s a disc of Vaseline behind the lens.
I was pointed in the direction of the central lobby. I can’t decide if it looks more like Hogwarts or Count Duckula’s castle.
(Image Source: Jorge Royan)
I confidently strode up to the receptionist’s desk. Behind her, a red screen displayed the text ‘THREAT WARNING: SEVERE’. I requested to see Meg Hillier, the MP for Hackney South.
“You’re an hour and a half early. The MPs aren’t due to take their seats until 11.30.”
Bollocks. I always was shit at the whole ‘fashionably late’ thing. I went and got a coffee from Parliament’s Jubilee café, and sat amidst a gaggle of hung over college students about to go on a tour. I read through the Infrastructure Bill in more detail, occasionally having to hold my breath when one of the students let off a stealthy morning after fart.
Parliamentary tat, courtesy of the gift shop.
The environmental campaigners met in the lobby at 11. Here we all are! Photo and hashtag and all that.
We had to wait for the Speaker’s Procession before we could start lobbying. The atmosphere became tense. Some of the campaigners had done a lot of lobbying in the past, and they said there were more police than usual. I counted ten, but apparently there’s normally only two. One campaigner said he recognised an officer as being from the controversial Territorial Support Group (TSG). The main doors locked behind us. Tense whispers. ‘We’re being kettled’.
The Speaker’s Procession went off without a hitch, and the doors were unlocked. To be honest, I don’t think we were being kettled. While I’m very much a part-time activist, some of them live and breathe this stuff. Coming from the front lines of protest where clashes with law enforcement are fairly commonplace, it’s easy to understand their jumpiness. The campaigner that spotted the TSG officer also claimed that he’d previously poured paint over David Cameron’s car, stormed the House of Commons, and jumped on the Speaker’s Chair. I haven’t been able to verify this.
11.30 AM. Receptionists started handing out green cards. If you don’t have an appointment with your MP, you get one of these and send it up to their office. Then you wait.
At around 1PM, my green card was sent back:
“Apologies- I am back to back in the Chamber and Select Committee. Please call my office…”
I’d been expecting to meet Meg face to face, discuss the issues and get an answer. While I was amazed that Westminster is open enough for a member of the public to rock up and request a meeting with their MP, it turns out that MPs’ calendars aren’t quite as flexible. Bit obvious really.
Instead, one of her representatives came to speak to me. Matt was affable, attentive, and honest. He said that Meg hadn’t made up her mind on the Infrastructure Bill, but she would email me when she’s come to a decision. He didn’t make any false promises on her behalf and I (begrudgingly) respect that. When I asked Matt how many other constituents had contacted Meg about the Infrastructure Bill, the answer was none. Turns out fracking just doesn’t capture Hackney South’s imagination like badgers do. Last year, the residents of Hackney South sent in over 400 letters about badger culling.
The people of Hackney really love the badgers. (Image credit: The Telegraph)
I let Matt get back to his work. I said goodbye to my fellow lobbyists and made my way to the courtyard exit.
I won’t deny that I felt deflated. It wasn’t a cathartic experience, but what had I expected? This isn’t The West Wing. Had I really thought I’d just go in there and magically change Meg’s mind? I think I’m too used to the instant gratifications of online life. Take e-petitions: you type in your details, fire off an email, then get told you’re changing the world and doing amazing things. In reality, democracy is slow and unsexy. It’s easy to see why Russell Brand’s calls to abandon voting resonates with so many people.
Do I think that public lobbying shows how accessible British democracy can be? Yes and no. It’s a great idea in principle, if you can be arsed to take a day off of work to visit during office hours. It’s nice to have access to your MP in Parliament, if you’re able to make your way down to London. It’s brilliant that you can browse through a proposed bill online, if you’re not put off by the near-impenetrable wording.
They’re all nice concessions toward democracy, but Parliament has a long way to go before voters will be satisfied that the political system works in their favour. Until then, there’s always bottled water and badger sanctuaries.
-If you have an issue you’d like to discuss with your MP, WriteToThem.com allows you to see your representative’s voting record and send them an email.
-For more information on campaigns against the Infrastructure Bill, here are the Facebook pages Britain and Ireland Frack Free (BIFF) and Frack Off!. Alternatively, you can do a Twitter search for #BinTheBill