It seems only the blink of an eye since my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and I arrived here as wide-eyed innocents in 1997, hoping to change the world—an idea of which I, certainly, was quickly disabused when I tried to get on to the Education Committee, and made the terrible mistake of telling the Whips why I should be on it. I had been a teacher, I had a Master’s degree in education, and I had practised educational law. Of course they said, “No chance—absolutely not!” They sent me to the Catering Committee, possibly owing to some subliminal association with school dinners.
Many of us found that we were going to spend much of our time on the Back Benches. In fact, it took me 11 years to become a promising newcomer, when the Prime Minister was so desperate that he finally made me a Whip. Since then I have had a number of jobs here in Parliament, and I want not to enumerate the things that I have done, but to thank the people who have supported me in that time.
First, I thank my husband Mike and my son Chris. I met my husband when he was my parliamentary agent, and I followed that useful advice: “If you have a good agent, you should hang on to him.” My son was only seven when I was elected, and throughout his childhood had to endure the terrible embarrassment of having a mother who was an MP and who was also frequently absent. I turned up early one week, and was there when he got home from school. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I live here; have you not noticed?” Clearly not.
I am very grateful first to the staff of the House who have supported me throughout those years. It is invidious to single out anyone, but I particularly thank the staff of the Tea Room, who have fed me, watered me, anticipated my needs and cheered me up through all that time. Secondly, I thank my office staff, past and present. MPs’ staff work incredibly hard, and the public often do not realise that. They work far more hours than they are paid for—IPSA please take note!—and, very often, the things for which constituents thank me are things that they have done. In fact, we decided long ago that the right response when people said, “Thank you for your letter” was “It was the least I could do”, because we did not know whether I had solved a problem for them or written to them because their mother had died.
Thirdly, I thank the staff of the Petitions Committee, past and present. It is an extraordinary privilege to chair a Select Committee, but it is a particular privilege to chair a new Committee and to be able to shape it, and I think that the Petitions Committee has been one of the successes in the House in the past few years. We have managed to pursue inquiries and not just become a clearing house for petitions, and we have pioneered new ways of communicating with the public. I could not have done that without the support of the wonderful staff who often work under extreme pressure, and also without the support of members of the Committee, who have shown that it is possible to look at issues with a clear, unprejudiced eye, and to reach common ground on how to deal with them.
Lastly, of course, I want to thank the wonderful electors of Warrington North, who have returned me in six general elections—thus proving that they are people of impeccable taste and judgment—and who have shown throughout a real decency that has supported me in difficult times. Most of my constituents are what I would call the “respectable working class”. They pay their bills on time, go to work, and keep their houses and gardens tidy. They are far too often ignored in politics, because they are not the noisy people; they are not the shouting people. In an age when there are lots of people shouting on social media, it is perhaps time we remembered that most people are decent people, and it is to them that we should be addressing ourselves.
Our politics has, I am afraid, become mired in a way of speaking which appeals to the worst in people. We hear talk about war, surrender, and so on, but politics ought to appeal to the best instincts of people, not their worst. If the House is to move forward in the future, it is the best instincts of people to which we need to appeal, because most people are common-sense people who will look for a compromise.
When I was growing up, I never expected to be an MP. I am the daughter of factory workers and the granddaughter of a miner, and I grew up on a council estate. When I was growing up if someone had said that one day I would be an MP that would have seemed as remote a possibility as my flying to the moon. It has been an incredible privilege to be here over these years and it will be a wrench to go, but we all have to go at some point and it will be a wrench whenever we decide to retire.
I have been very lucky to have a number of roles in Parliament after my 11 years on the Back Benches. I have been in the Whips Office, and I have had different Front Bench roles, including local government finance. In fact I once said to the current Opposition Chief Whip when I was doing that, “It’s very interesting,” and he said, “Helen, local government finance is important, but it is not interesting.” I found it interesting, however, which perhaps says something about me. Most of all, I am grateful for the friendships I have made here, for the comradeship that people have shown me, and for the support I have had from my colleagues in difficult times.
When I was first elected local council officers were told not to bother too much about responding to my letters, because I would only be a one-term MP. I am now the longest-serving MP in Warrington’s history, so I think I have made the point now.
“it’s been a privilege flying with you.”