Contempt for MPs is running high – when 50for15 asks voters what their views of politicians are, many are disaffected, and many are actively angry. Various scandals over the years – Plebgate in 2012, the expenses scandals in 2009, and the cash for coronets affair in 2006 – have gnawed away at citizens’ enthusiasm for their elected representatives.
In recent weeks, it hasn’t helped that Malcolm Rifkind, MP for Kensignton, got caught saying, “you’d be surprised how much free time I have”, and that an anonymous Conservative MP has been reported as telling Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central, “the thing that you need to learn about this place is that it is only really a part-time job.”
But working part-time is not the impression given by Julie Hilling, MP for Bolton West, who won her seat in 2010 by a margin of just 92 votes. As she rushes to meet me at a canteen in the bowels of Parliament, she clings on to a small tree’s worth of papers and desperately tries to finish off the phone call she’s halfway through – “General election,” she explains breathlessly.
Hilling is not just having a bad day. Her TheyWorkForYou profile shows that Hilling has spoken in 92 debates on topics from cyber crime to the Youth Parliament and energy bills, and has voted more than 80% of the time. She is ranked as “well above average” in both categories.
It makes sense that MPs with smaller margins would be more incentivised to work harder than those in safe seats – though Hilling downplays this, describing herself as a “workaholic” anyway. “If I’m not here, then I’m in the constituency, unless I’m looking after my disabled mum. That’s my life: here, constituency, mum. And it’s wonderful.”
But does being an MP whose job was secured by less than 100 votes mean that her work on a national scale – projects that are not only indirectly relevant to Bolton West – has been compromised? “It’s a twin-track approach on everything,” Hilling says.
“A big campaign [of mine] has been around teaching emergency life support skills in schools so that every school leaver becomes a life saver, but again what I try to do all the time is that]the work that I do here, I try to do in the constituency as well. So not only am I campaigning here for it to become a statutory part of the curriculum, I’m also trying to get all the schools in my constituency to teach life-saving skills, and get defibrillators.”
Hilling also chairs the All Party Rail in the North Group: “I do a lot around rail, which has a relevancy in the constituency, but again it’s wider: obviously I’m talking about rail across the whole of the north of England.”
A few weeks before meeting Hilling, I had a couple of drinks with Chris Green, the Conservative challenger for Bolton West and the man most likely to take Julie Hilling’s job come the early hours of May 8th. At the end of what had been a perfectly non-sinister evening in a Bolton pub, a couple of drunk men came up to us and gave Green some racist advice for what to do when he got to Parliament: their principal message was that the Pakistani community was comparable to rodents.
Has Hilling ever come across similarly racist sentiments in Bolton West? “I think there is a lot of latent racism, and if you talk to any black, Asian, or minority ethnic person, they will be able to tell you about horrible incidents that they’ve faced, and there is a big increase in hate crime generally as well, so crimes against disabled people, women [and so on have gone up].”
And given that, according to Hilling, the top three concerns that come up on the doorstep are the lack of (decent) jobs, the NHS, and immigration. “People in Bolton West will say Bolton is full of asylum seekers and illegal migrants, but the community they’re talking about has been there since the 1950s. So there is a lot of myth about what’s happening in our community.”
A scheme that Hilling picks out as particularly good at combating racism in her constituency is the twinning of schools across the borough of Bolton. “There are schools in Great Lever [a couple of miles south of Bolton town centre] that will have a large Asian population, but schools in most of my constituency have got very small numbers of BAME people, so they do some cross-cultural work, just across the borough.”
She also commends the Bolton Socialist Club – a left wing club in Bolton that is not party-affiliated – for their Anti-Hate Crime photography competition, which she recently launched.
Hilling’s opponents in May include not just Chris Green, but also UKIP’s Bob Horsefield. With such a small margin, Horsefield would only need to take a few more votes off Hilling than Green to cause Hilling to lose her job. Is she worried?
“I think locally they’ll be taking votes off the Tories, Labour, and in fact Lib Dems. There’d have to be an absolute revolution locally for UKIP to win, but of course they are of concern to all of us I think. It’s another force that changes the old positions, that we can’t calculate any more.”
It’s certainly true that UKIP are making everything unpredictable, but UKIP might be of especial threat to Hilling, given that Horsefield is a former trade unionist and supporter of the Labour Party. Hilling, however, downplays the importance of the Horsefield’s background: “I don’t think it’s about the candidate as such, but I think UKIP has become a none-of-the-above vote.
“I think people are voting UKIP without knowing what their policies are, that UKIP is in fact a very right-wing party: it wants to shrink the state, they can’t quite decide what they’re doing about health, but one of the things they’re doing is pay-for health care, or insurance policies for health care, and their leader thinks that Margaret Thatcher is the best thing ever.
“And it worries me that working class people are thinking they’re a good option because of their stance on immigration – but actually their stance on everything else would make things much much worse for them. If you’re poorer, you need more of a state to support you. You need health care for free, you need to ensure your old people are being looked after, you need to ensure your kids have nursery places: all of those things that would be reduced by UKIP.”
Hilling also brings up the job losses that could be the result of leaving the European Union, pointing in particular to Severfield, the steel manufacturers whose English factories and offices are located in Bolton and Thirsk, Yorkshire. “Companies like Severfield – I’m going to see them in a couple of weeks – when I went to see them before, they competed for a lot of European contracts, but they wouldn’t get those same contracts [if the UK left the EU]. So it’s very worrying, very very worrying.”
The tendency may be worrying on a national level, but it must certainly be worrying in terms of job prospects. So how is she planning for what could be a very sudden reduction in her workload?
“I don’t have anything next, there is no next. It has been an absolute honour and privilege to be the MP. It took my ten years of actively trying to become an MP to become one. It is my life’s dream. It sounds a bit odd nowadays, the way politicians are viewed.”
When I turned off my Dictaphone so that she could get off to her next appointment, she insisted on further explaining her decision to join the ranks of such a disrespected part of the population: “I was a youth worker, and I got involved in a trade union when I hit barriers. I wanted to make things better for ordinary people – I don’t like that phrase, I mean people who aren’t rich.
“All my work here has been to make life better for ordinary people.” Then she adds, with a broad and almost melancholy smile, “It’s not a job, it’s my passion.”
As we part ways, Hilling rattles off a list of meetings she is due to chair and commitments she undertakes in her role as an opposition whip. “And this is just my day job,” she says, referring to that small matter of securing her continued employment in two months’ time.