https://commonshansard.blog.parliament.uk/2019/12/05/hansard-preparing-for-a-general-election/

Hansard: preparing for a general election

The majority of Hansard’s work is based around the activities of the Chambers and Committees of the House of Commons. This means that when the House is in recess (during the summer or at Christmas, for example) our staff work on a range of other projects. But during the six-week pre-election period and in the immediate aftermath, those activities can take a different shape and help us to achieve a goal that is central to our core role: learning the names and faces of new Members of Parliament.

Memory test

Do you know who your MP is—or was, until the pre-election period? I bet I do. Knowing every constituency off by heart isn’t essential for Hansard reporters, but it certainly helps because it is parliamentary protocol for MPs to refer to each other by their constituency during debates. After every general election, each Hansard reporter is equipped with a thin paper book listing all Members of Parliament alongside their constituency (we call it the blue book because, strangely enough, it’s blue). This means that we can look up constituency information during a debate if necessary. But spending so much time listening to debates means that this knowledge seeps into our subconscious anyway. If you ever met me, I’d probably ask where you live and then triumphantly shout your MP’s name, which you’d either already know or not give a toss about. Don’t pay attention; I’m just testing myself. Every Hansard reporter dreams of the day they turn up to a pub quiz to find a large sheet of paper listing all 650 constituencies alongside the instructions “Name the MP”.

The blue book

Isn’t it on TV?

Although knowing which constituency each MP represents at the drop of a hat is not vital, matching names with faces (and, if possible, voices) certainly is. The most important piece of information Hansard reporters and sub-editors capture in the Chamber, Westminster Hall and Committees is who is rising to speak. As long as the microphone comes on, the words will be picked up and we access the recorded sound at our desks. But we have to know who is speaking in order to attribute those words to the right person.

If you’re thinking, “But it’s all on Parliament TV these days”, you’d be right. It would be a legitimate way of checking most Members who are giving speeches, but the camera operators will not necessarily be on the correct wide shot to capture a Member heckling from the opposite side of the Chamber or Committee Room, as frequently happens. And what if there were technical problems with the broadcast? We need to be able see a face and immediately write down the correct name.

Hansard reporters overlooking the Chamber, with the trusty blue book in close reach

General election changes

This is obviously a particular challenge after a general election because there are a lot of new faces. Has your boss ever introduced a new colleague who you have to work with all the time, but whose name keeps slipping your mind so you avoid using it at all and just attract their attention by coughing or changing the tone of your voice? One colleague? Maybe two? That’s nothing; it’s like a by-election for us. Imagine getting 100 or so new colleagues all at once, or maybe even more. And then having to take accurate minutes of a meeting with all those new colleagues the following week, without interrupting to say, “I’m sorry, could you remind me of your name?”

At the last general election in 2017, there were 87 brand new MPs and 12 MPs who had served in the House of Commons previously, but not immediately prior to the election. And that was nothing compared to the 2015 election, which saw the election of 177 people who had never been MPs before as well as the return of a handful of old faces. This time around 74 Members are standing down, meaning that there will be at least that many new faces. But given the turbulent nature of politics in the UK at the moment, it is likely that a number of former MPs will lose their seats—taking the number even higher.

After I explained to a friend how the recent spate of general elections was becoming my biennial brain-training exercise, he replied: “Why do you bother? Doesn’t the Speaker call out their names anyway?” It is true that the occupant of the Chair generally calls out the name of each MP to make a speech, but in particularly busy or fast-paced debates, they do not always call the name of a Member making an intervention—and obviously never call out the name of someone heckling, due to the very nature of the act. Some occupants of the Chair are louder than others, so it is not always possible to hear names being called. Hansard reporters in the main Chamber also sit directly above the Speaker’s Chair, so its occupant is usually the only person we cannot actually even see. Not to mention the fact that the new MPs will be new to the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers as well, so they too might be on slightly unsure footing to begin with.

A full House of Commons Chamber. Hansard reporters need to know all MPs by sight. Photo credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Stephen Pike

How we approach these challenges

At Hansard, we take responsibility for learning new Members’ faces as quickly as possible, immersing ourselves in wider projects and assisting in other areas of the House, as well as building up a Hansard-specific memory bank so that we hit the ground running immediately after the election. Some of this activity begins before the election has even taken place.

One large piece of work that has been happening over the past few weeks is our own new Member recognition project. We produce concise profile sheets for each candidate with a reasonable chance of becoming a new Member, so that we can begin to learn names and faces before election day. We only include candidates whose party came within 20 percentage points of winning in a given seat at the last election or by-election, plus a few others who reputable polling sites think have a good chance of winning.

As well as finding a recent photograph of each candidate, we try to find out some interesting and quirky facts so that new MPs stick in our memory. It’s good to find out about previous work and political interests so that we know which subjects new MPs might speak about in the House and their angle on particular issues. But it’s much more likely that we’ll remember a face if we know they have a collection of thimbles from around the world or own a cat called Terry. Obviously not all staff will see every profile and not all candidates will be elected. But for the ones that are, the information will be available for us all to read, and colleagues who have worked on the project will be in a great position to share their knowledge with those who did not.

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing two more blog posts on Hansard’s work around the general election, focusing on election night activity and post-election duties.

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