“Who?”: A tale from the public phone line of an MP’s office

There is nothing more mortifying when you make an embarrassing mistake, especially so when it’s a well-known Labour Member of Parliament on the other end of the line. This was a few years ago, so I have tried to recall the conversations of the time, but as you imagine I can’t remember dialogue 100% but I have tried to make a good representation of how the conversation went down. As much as this is a small anecdote about a screw-up, it’s a good description of how telephone lines work from within a constituency office.

The date was around 2012 when I was working as a parliamentary assistant for Hazel Blears, and on this particular day I was manning the phones in the constituency office. Now the context to this was, the main phone line was often used by constituents for case work related issues. A secondary line, not open to the public, was often used for other MPs or delegates. Some days you could pick up the public phone and immediately be met by a barrage of abuse for five-minutes before even being able to say a single word. Sometimes you would pick up the phone to somebody crying for help. In one instance I picked up the phone to a Lord, who demanded he spoke immediately to my boss. I remember rushing onto Google while entertaining him with small talk to find out the validity of his claim. It turned out he had paid for the privilege of his title from the internet. The range of calls was spectacular, and every time you picked up the phone, it was a new and exciting surprise to who you would talk to next.

On this particular day, I had been on the phones while working on some case work and research. The majority of the calls had been nothing out of the ordinary: potholes, benefits, immigration issues, and campaign lobbying. Moments before the call in question I had dealt with an extremely irate constituent over an issue I cannot recall. It shouldn’t happen, but sometimes someone shouting at you down a telephone line for an issue you can’t help with puts you in a terrible mood and takes you away from your ‘A-game’. Moments after that call had finished, the distinctive ring returned, I picked up the phone once again, and was met by the voice of a woman, with a Liverpudlian accent, a rarity from the usual Salfordian accent commonly at the end of the line.

Me: “Hello, This is the Office of Hazel Blears MP, how can I help you?”

Woman: “Hello, can I speak with Hazel Blears?”

This is something we heard a lot, and rightly so, people often wish to talk directly to their MP or simply did not understand that MP’s are not one-person bands and in reality they had a team supporting their role as a representative. However, as anyone who has worked in a political office before will understand, MPs are extremely busy and it’s a rarity they are at their desks to take calls.

The tactic into how you deal with these calls is fairly basic. Firstly you insure they are actual constituents. As a large majority of calls were people phoning from outside the constituency, and the normal response is to help them understand why you can’t personally help them and why another office can. Then you would forward the person on to the right MPs office. Secondly you find out if they are calling about an issue you can personally deal with. After all it’s why I was there. Thirdly, if it’s something that you feel would be better dealt with through a letter, for example a policy issue, you take their query over the phone, and forward the details on to the boss who’d normally send a lettered reply. It was very rare a call from the public line would actually need to be passed directly to the boss, even if she was at her desk. If someone who was calling needed to talk to Hazel with immediacy they would normally be calling the private line.

Me: “Can I ask to the nature of your call?”

Alison: “it’s Alison McGovern here, can I speak with Hazel?”*

“Ahh yes” my internal monologue should have said, picking up who exactly this person is. But nope, my idiot brain did not make the connection and decided it was one of “those” constituents. The type I would receive often, who expect you to know exactly who they are, never-mind the fact I could be taking anywhere up-to 30 calls a day lasting 5 to 20 minutes every day, and dealing with even more through mass campaign emails, letters, or people coming into the office.

Me: “who? I’m sorry we deal with a large number of cases and….”

Alison: “….MP for Wirral South”

Internal monologue: “I’m a complete idiot.”

Yes, this is a small slip and things like this happen. But I prided myself on remaining professional and knowledgeable on all outward facing conversations. A screw up like this was a big deal for me. As a parliamentary assistant, any mistake I make would look bad on my boss. And it was a bigger deal considering it was another political representative on the line… you know… people who demand a bit more respect on the telephone than asking “who?”.

Me: “I do apologize, I will see if Hazel is available.”

At the time the boss wasn’t in the office, but I had to double check anyway. I ended up communicating this back to Alison who thanked me and said she would try another time or her mobile. Overall I don’t think I have felt that much of an idiot in such a short space of time. I don’t cringe thinking about this, luckily it’s one of them things I have learned to laugh about.

There is no real moral to the story other than constituents are human, parliamentary assistants are human, and MPs are human. And for that reason, you should learn to have a good laugh when you cock up.

 

* The conversation went something like that, and she was certainly not at all short. In fact she was extremely friendly from what I recall!

 

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