I was at the Green Gathering, a hippy fest, when I heard I had beenappointed to the House of Lords. Quite honestly, I had never believed until then that the coalition government would give the Green party a peerage. I couldn’t see what was in it for them. I’m still staggered I’m here.
The introduction ceremony was a quick hurdle to jump: seven minutes in the chamber, wearing fake-fur robes, borrowed for the day. I felt a touch hypocritical, swearing my allegiance to the Queen, all of her progeny and all of her unborn progeny, and so on. I’m not a republican – I think the royal family perform a wonderful ceremonial function – but I am an atheist, and I also find the idea that the royal family has any power over the government staggering.
The Green party’s line on the House of Lords is that we should replace it with a fully elected chamber. It’s also our policy to engage with parts of the political system that don’t sit easily with us, so there was never any doubt that we would take the seat. But as the first Green ever appointed to the House of Lords, it feels as if I am working out how to do everything for the very first time; like going to a new school and not taking any of your friends with you.
I had an induction on my first day, during which I met the clerk of parliament, who runs the house, and Black Rod, who does the security and rules. I was given some advice, and a little booklet explaining some of the protocol, but that can only ever give a broad‑brush feeling. I’m constantly breaking little rules I don’t know exist. Recently I was politely told off for allowing my guest to stand on the blue carpet outside the chamber. As I found out, there is quite a complex set of rules associated with that carpet. I’ve also never seen the dress code written down, but I have been advised that I probably shouldn’t wear a cardigan. I have since worn one, though – pushing at the barriers, you know!
Many people have told me that the best thing to do for the first year at the House of Lords is to come in, listen to the debates, learn the dialect and the formulae, and not go at it too bull-in-a-china-shop. So far, I’ve spoken only twice, about policing, just to vent my fury, really, and only with about 20 people there. I asked one Labour peer, who has been incredibly supportive, for feedback on one of my speeches, and he said I hadn’t got the hang of how much flattery was necessary. He said you can’t flatter the house enough. Second, he felt that my mentioning the student protests happening as the debate took place was fine, but possibly “a bit current”.
Bits of this have been painful. Every time I am called m’lady I feel a mild stab. But I have been struck by how welcoming and friendly everyone is. Having been on the London assembly since it started in 2000, I am used to the cut and thrust of politics, but I haven’t seen that here. I’ve also been surprised by how small–L liberal people are. Because you’re here for life, unless you commit a crime, people are freer. There’s also a huge range of expertise – many peers have spent their lives as judges or doctors or filmmakers. So when legislation comes here – sometimes quite cobbled-together and written by civil servants – it is examined by forensic, expert minds.
Perhaps the other peers are waiting to see whether I can be trusted before they approach me to work together on specific issues, as that hasn’t really happened yet, but I do feel I am starting to see a glimmer of hope that there will be opportunities for Green policies. I’m certain there must be other people here who care about the same things that I care about – road deaths, climate change, air pollution, fracking – who I can work with. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever fit in. That’s not to say I won’t feel at home here, and it’s not to say that I won’t engage as fully as I possibly can, but as long as there is just one of me I will always be some sort of outsider.