Part of Parliament: Commons Communications director Lee Bridges
Lee Bridges did not think he would fit in when he started work at Westminster in 2012. Now the Director of Communications for the House of Commons is determined to change the way Parliament is perceived
As a working class, northern, comprehensively-educated gay man, I had doubts about whether I would fit in at the House of Commons. I just thought because this place is so old, and so large – like Hogwarts – that perhaps it wouldn’t be for me. But it’s full of really nice, brilliant people who are dedicated to this democracy thing. It’s what binds us all together.
My role requires me to set a strategy for the how the Commons as an institution communicates about what it’s for, what it’s doing, and the impact it makes to people’s lives. If all goes to plan, a typical day would begin with a briefing about what’s in the press related to the House of Commons. Then there’s a lot of meeting people seeing if they’re okay, coaching, and providing support. I try to intersperse strategy work, thinking about what’s coming up and how can the House respond. And then obviously I keep one eye constantly on the news.
We offer a 24-hour a day, seven-days a week service across the year. We deal with all sorts of inquiries, mainly regarding legislation; when is the bill going to be debated, what happens to it after that, etcetera. Now, we’re being asked lots of questions about the role of the Lords and the Commons with the EU (Withdrawal) bill. Occasionally if there’s a row in the Chamber for example the press are quite keen to know what that’s about, if it’s about procedure or otherwise.
I also work closely with fellow board members of the Commons, and with select committee communication and the House of Lords team because we do a lot of work explaining the role of Parliament in its entirety through our education service. We have House of Commons staff in the country all the time delivering sessions and talking to people and feeding back what it is the public are saying, thinking or interested in.
My most memorable day, because it crossed that line between work, vocation and also my personal life, was when the Equal Marriage Act was finally passed. That was a momentous piece of legislation for the country and more so personally.
The most challenging days are when we have to dispel misconceptions about MPs. We have one million visitors every year and there are 15,000 pass holders. If there’s been a freedom of information request, for example, on how many chocolate bars were eaten in a year, that often then becomes a story claiming ‘MPs eat 25,000 chocolate bars’. There’s also the problem posed by misleading memes and claims on social media about the work MPs undertake. To combat this, we dial up the positives about people who have good experiences of Parliament and MPs, and focus on the often-unseen work. The petitions committee is really helping us with that, such as with the debate on banning forcing women to wear high heels at work and Donald Trump’s state visit.
Another immediate challenge is the restoration work to the Palace. The trick for us will be explaining to the public about what’s going on. The building is internationally loved - I regularly receive calls during the night from Japanese and Australian media outlets asking about news related to Big Ben. It’s a good opportunity through the building to actually explain what goes on inside it and that democracy isn’t just about this building.
Going forward we’re thinking seriously about social and digital media and concentrating on the core messages about the House of Commons.
For this job you need resilience I suppose, because it can be frustrating when everybody in your team are working so hard on a really good story, and then chocolate bar-type headlines feature in the press. I don’t think it’s a job that you can do for an entire career unbroken. It’s not something forever.
It’s such a vocational thing working for the Commons, because I really care about it and really want to do everything I can to make sure that people are given as much access as they want.
My own impression of the Commons before my first day in 2012 is a useful barometer for how I wish the institution to be perceived. It’s a personal challenge almost to get across to people that it’s not like that; people from untraditional backgrounds can work here and thrive.