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the loneliest place

 
 

Starting my placement in the House of Commons as a young, gay northern man I was very naive about the world and surroundings I would soon find myself in. This is my account of how I experienced my own inner struggles to find my ‘place’ in such an alien world.

I’m fascinated by politics. Its very essence seeps into the meaning of our everyday lives, it interweaves and effects even the smallest of our everyday actions. This is the sad truth whether we like it or not. Whilst at University I made the decision to do a placement year, I searched frantically to find something that would ignite my passions and make me feel like I had a real purpose in life.
Everything that I was interested in and applied for, I never got, but I remained hopeful. On my final attempt, I pinned all my hopes onto my application to work with the secretariat of the Justice Select Committee in the House of Commons. Working closely with MPs - right in the centre of power, scrutinising Government policy seemed like the ideal job for me, albeit - always just out of my reach.

After weeks of anxiously waiting, I secured an interview. I put all of my energy into preparing, after all this was my one chance to enter the world of Westminster.

The interview scared me senseless. I sat in the stuffy room, answering questions that perplexed me, I stuttered and stumbled and could not articulate what I wanted to say. Not holding out many hopes when I left, I fully expected to have lost my chance - I was devastated to say the least. I returned home, and started to tell myself that it was stupid to think someone like me could ever work in the machinery of Government.

Thankfully, my soon to be line manager saw potential and she fought my corner. For that, I owe her many thanks. A lot later down the line after hopes had diminished; I got the call to say that they would like to offer me the position. This seemed like it was the start of an amazing chapter in my life, I was soon to learn that not everything is always as rosy, as it seems after all every rose has its thorns.    

I soon settled into my flat with my best friend in central London, I really felt like I had achieved something as a working class boy, who grew up on various council estates and had a very precarious upbringing. My entire life up to press had been marred by uncertainty, unknowing and in essence the very basic need for survival. The idea of me working in the House of Commons, the notion was unbelievable. I felt for the first time I had purpose, in doing so I was standing up to the establishment. Royally smashing the engrained narratives of who was ‘supposed’ to work in the House of Commons. With one fell swoop I was transcending and upturning the very system that kept me in my ‘rightful place’. I felt free and unconstrained, I felt alive; I was going some way to writing the wrongs of intergenerational strife endured by my family.  


Being a gay northern socialist, I went in with the idea of challenging everything. I soon came to realise the institution of the House of Commons is more powerfully archaic, controlling and severely deprecating of the human soul, than I could have ever imagined. It really does seem little has changed in many-many years, and through my experience I came to learn that there are aspects of the culture and institutions of the House of Commons that really do belong in the past.

Everything within the House is rigidly institutional. It is bound by procedure and convention and this very particular way of working is alienating and tedious. I was not accustomed to procedure and convention, I often felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. I did not understand the context or rules of the game I was supposed to be playing and it seemed like no one seemed willing to enlighten me. I was brought up in sheer contrast to the experience I was living. It felt alien, I had no point of reference and I found it hard to relate this strange world to my ‘place’ in society.

Having no point of reference, I went to hand Members a paper copy of the briefing material, here I inadvertently made a huge faux pas. I crossed the floor of the Committee taking a shorter route. Well anybody would think I’d bent over and spread my cheeks, it was a mortal sin and I was guilty. I’m guilty of many sins, in many different ways, but this one really did upset me. This was never to be done; it is seen as deeply disrespectful and I have a personal vendetta about being respectful, to me respect is the very thing that keeps us functioning. To break this was to break my own personal notions of society.

 In my work to support Members in their scrutiny of the Ministry of Justice, it should have fulfilled me, but it just didn’t in the way I always thought it would. I felt not only alone but also deeply unfulfilled. The whole culture of the House of Commons based around the lives of the wealthy middle and upper middle classes; there was very little similarity to anything I had ever experienced before.  

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Sure, there are plenty of working class people working in Parliament. However, the whole system and structure is in the favour of privately educated persons, who are trained through their education to follow rigid and minute detail, who know the game and how to play it. I became acutely aware that I felt alone in such strange place, unaccustomed and unable to understand the world I was in. Neither did I feel like I had met anyone within the House that really understood me, I felt no shared comradery and little connection to anyone around me. It was distressing and lonely; it pushed me to the very edge.

I felt that the culture of respect was deeply lacking between staff and some members of Parliament. Through gritted teeth, I hid my hatred for the claustrophobic traditions of the House of Commons, I threw myself into the work at hand. Being within an institution that valued minute detail, rather than understanding the wider picture, tradition over efficiency, the status quo over positive change was exhausting. There were people there who hated the place for that very reason but others relished in it. It was the perfect personification of the system and how it serves to keep people in their place, to challenge this was to challenge our society itself.

I had always imagined the House of Commons to be a symbol of democracy, the place in which real changes and influence was the lifeblood. However, the loneliness of not feeling like I belonged began to eat me inside. I was self-destructive. Outside of work I indulged in some very questionable tendencies; namely indiscriminate sexual encounters and heavy drinking. I was in London after all, but my mental health was deteriorating rapidly and by the time my placement ended, I was exhausted.

Working in the House of Commons did teach me something immensely valuable.

I learnt first-hand, in the centre of government that democracy is not just the act of voting; it is the act of doing and hands on engagement, not a detachment from reality. Detachment perpetuated by nonsensical procedural traditions. Witnessing this ivory tower mentality while the country was being dragged through ideologically motivated austerity - I felt enraged. I lost my trust in the institutions of the House of Commons, but I did not lose my faith in the ability of individuals to make fundamental change.

The House of Commons is so detached from reality that I couldn’t take it anymore, I felt so far away from real life, real experiences, the people supposed to be representing us don’t understand that Westminster isn’t where politics happens, it happens in all of us, everywhere and everyday. We are the ones with the power, ideas and ability to effect society in our everyday lives; they are merely our representatives. Some individual members of the House and staff really were crying out for change and they are the unsung heroes in this context, they continue to fight. They push the agenda on new more modern ways of working, inclusivity and diversity in staff and the relaxation of stuffy institutional rules, but the battle is long and hard and change takes more time and patience than I could contribute in mere year.

Throughout all the loneliness, glimmers of hope twinkled in my line of site at all times. I’m fuelled by passion and solidarity with human beings. I needed to make a difference, and I did sometimes. Nowhere near as much would I have liked, but every minor victory is a victory none the less. We must take small victories where they come, and cherish our connections to other human beings. Working in the House of Commons was an amazing opportunity and experience, but it’s a deeply bitter sweet place.

Author: Conor Johnson