Jenny Jones / Baroness Moulsecoomb. Photo: Tanoshimi / Wikimedia Commons.
Learning the weird and wonderful ropes
23rd January 2014
The House of Lords is full of surprises - arcane rituals, labyrinthine corridors, mysterious procedures ... but also help, support and friendship from unexpected quarters, says Green peer Jenny Jones.
This is the work of a lifetime. I could be there for decades, so it's important to get it right.
I keep passing milestones in my new parliamentary career. Some are political, many are personal. This is about the more difficult practical aspects of being a lone peer - strangely the politics are much easier. Here's a list of nine things I have learned - or really must learn:
How to vote - and no, it's not easy
I have voted several times - that sounds sort of easy, but it's hard to predict when a vote will happen. So far, I've voted against the government, which will happen a lot, probably even if the government changes. And I've spoken twice, on policing.
The first time I voted I was ignorant of the corridor voting system and went the wrong way up the Content corridor, and then having raced around through the Peers' Lobby, incomprehensibly I went the wrong way up the Not Content too (I have realised since that the queues go in opposite directions).
The second time I voted, I tucked myself into a mass of people I assumed were like-minded and followed them to the right place. Voting involves saying your name to an officer to get it a tick in a register, and then being counted off by a peer holding a drum stick. Musical, not chicken. Now I know where to go.
The Blue Carpet, and why it's still morning at 2pm
I've expressed my incredulity at some of the weirder weirdnesses, for example, the blue carpet where, when the House is sitting, only peers can stand or talk - all others must keep walking and keep quiet.
But now I know that it's always morning until the House sits, so that's why the doorkeepers say "Good Morning" until 2.30 or 3pm.
Finding my locker
There's progress: as well as a peg for my coat, I've now been given a locker, but always have to spend a few minutes hunting for it in the extensive corridors. I've always prided myself on my sense of direction, but with no external clues, like light, it's very easy to get confused. I now carry a map.
Enjoying a nice cup of tea
I've also experimented with a cup of tea at the Long Table. It's a table for peers only and the rule is that you have to sit right next to whoever is there, which is a useful way for me of meeting people.
A peer did tell me he'd have a look at who is there then walk around a bit if the next person to sit next to wasn't his choice of companion, but I don't feel like that about anyone so far. Once more, I'm finding Tory colleagues particularly restful. There's so little policy agreement that we can ignore work and just chat.
Help is essential
I've an Assistant for a day a week, whom I pay from my own allowance. She helps me to keep the post/emails under control and my diary operational. It's her first experience of Parliament, so we're both learning.
Some peers are being extremely kind in answering my many questions. Over the New Year break, while walking one afternoon on a canal towpath in Hertfordshire, I passed two women walkers, who asked, "Are you Jenny?".
One of them was Baroness (Lola) Young, who has since generously offered to be my mentor. I know now to ask as many questions as I need.
Rome wasn't built in a day
At a planning meeting with senior Greens, we discussed how to use my new role. To my surprise and relief, they suggested I get to know the ropes, learn the processes, make contacts, and generally settle in, before picking up any big campaigns to work on.
The point was made that this is the work of a lifetime. I could be there for decades, so it's important to get it right. My party is so sensible ...
Knowing when to say 'no'
There are a lot of All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) that are a good way of staying informed on issues. I've been to the policing APPG and plan to go to the next cycling one, but it would be possible to fill every evening with such meetings, so I'll have to restrain myself.
However, I am hoping to do a few events with RoadPeace, the charity for road traffic victims that I've been working with for over a decade. Learning to say 'no' will be hard.
Don't get carried away with a title
There's also the work to do that doesn't involve being in the Chamber, or even in the House. I've had a lot more invites to visit or speak.
As an egalitarian I have never given much value to titles as it seems a bit hit and miss who gets recognised (eg Cameron's hairdresser?) but clearly there is some kudos to being a peer, even though I'm often called 'Dame' instead and two people have curtseyed. Many people think hierarchies are normal.
I am now Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb - the Council Estate in Brighton where I grew up. But mostly I'm still Jenny.
There is fun to be had
My Lords work can be great fun. So far I've visited two EU regions - Eastern and the South West - to support the leading candidates, and will be visiting Yorkshire and Humberside this month.
And, very excitingly, I'm also going to visit Moulsecoomb Primary School where I was a pupil from 1955 to 1961, to tell them how I got to the House of Lords. I'll have to explain I didn't have an accepted career trajectory. As my family has said many times, "Who'd have thought it?"
Jenny Jones, also known as Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, is an ex-archaeologist and former chair of the Green Party. She has been a member of the London Assembly since 2000 and was elected as the first Green member on Southwark Council 2006-10.
See her earlier Parliamentary Blog in The Ecologist: "Slog, robes and fake fur".
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