Page last updated at 14:44 GMT, Wednesday, 19 December 2012
Making time for the Chamber

By Seema Malhotra
Labour MP for Feltham and Heston

I was given some good advice when I came into the House of Commons - that it can take a good year to get settled and that there were no set rules to how an MP organised their day.

You would decide what works for you as you decide your priorities. Almost 12 months into the role, I can safely say it was one of the best and most useful insights I was given.

Leading an adjournment debate on 28 June

An MP's life has many different facets. The distinct - and arguably primary - role is that of legislator, even if in Opposition you rarely win Commons votes. In addition, you play the roles of community champion, community leader, campaigner, caseworker, strategist, colleague.

You could spend little time in the constituency, or spend a lot of time. You could spend little time in the Chamber, or a lot. You could spend little time in media studios, or a lot. And you could spend little time in the library, or a great deal...

In their own way, every MP balances the daily constant flow of activity.

Early on in my time as a parliamentarian, I met a range of colleagues to ask what their tips were for a new MP. Every single MP I spoke to shared something someone had told them early on or that they had gleaned over the years as they chased that holy grail of achieving the most that is possible in an ever shorter amount of time.

However, it was a chat with Dennis Skinner in the tea room that led to me change the organisation of my day. For him, it was all about the Chamber. That's where it really happened. Dennis is a veteran, and a master of the political arts. He emphasised understanding the power of the Chamber to achieve your political goals.

The Chamber is unique place, almost a life of its own. It has a mood, and often an emotion.

I had noticed early on as my office began to schedule meetings with all those I wanted to meet, and all those who wanted to meet me, that I would find I would miss questions and key debates, as days were suddenly filled with meetings in Westminster or the constituency.

I would be left catching up on the internet or with the radio in the evening with what had gone on downstairs from my office. At the same time, what was also increasingly clear, was the well-developed skill of experienced politicians and Chamber veterans in striking a point home.

Anyone can ask a question, but there is great variation in the effect it has, depending on how it is asked.

A politician really can spend most of their time outside the Chamber, only attending for key debates or votes. Spending time in the Chamber becomes a choice, a priority you have to decide, and time you have to actively plan for.

It was this that led me a few months into the job to decide to actively block out Chamber time in the diary. Unless there was an unavoidable clash, I would be in the Chamber for questions every day I could, and for opening and closing speeches for the main business.

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Events like the Hillsborough statement in the Commons this year were 'seminal moments'

That was one of the best office decisions I made. It has ensured I have experienced the Chamber on a great variety of occasions and in many different moods.

The Chamber is unique place, almost a life of its own. It has a mood, and often an emotion. It has respect for the place it is, and the parliamentary traditions rooted in the standing orders, but also the office of the Speaker.

It has gravitas, it has humour.

And if I take seminal moments of the year like the Hillsborough statement and debate, it has the capacity for the deepest of compassion and humility.




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