This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
You know you’ve made it when your portrait hangs alongside those of the prime minister, his Lib Dem deputy, the foreign secretary and the Speaker.
Natascha Engel’s photograph appeared recently as part of an exhibition on democracy to celebrate Parliament Week. “I don’t know what I was doing there,” the Labour MP says, shaking her head.
From someone else, it might sound like politicians’ false modesty, but Engel seems genuinely surprised at the status afforded to her as chairman of the backbench business committee. Speaker Bercow describes her as “self-effacing”, and it’s a good expression for a woman whose job is to champion ‘everyone else’ – the MPs who don’t hold summits, cut ribbons or launch consultations.
“A democracy purist,” one MP calls her. Another suspects that she’s “one to watch” – someone who took a bitty idea about championing backbench interests and turned it into a powerful check on the executive. But does Engel secretly harbour frontbench desires? “It doesn’t feel like this leads to anything [else],” she says. “[The backbench business committee] is completely different from anything else. It isn’t like ‘PPS to junior minister’… Anything could happen, good and bad. It’s slightly chaotic.”
Right now, ‘chaotic’ is a good word for Engel’s life. She’s in the middle of moving house and her Portcullis office is strewn with pillows, piles of papers and plastic toy elephants. She holds her arms out dramatically. “Welcome to my world,” she exclaims.
“I’ve moved house quite recently because I’m getting divorced, and I’ve got three little kids and my dad died last year. The last two years have been hell on earth, actually… In terms of being in touch, I’m about as out of touch as it’s possible to be.” She laughs self-consciously, and runs her hands through her hair.
Despite what has been a difficult time, Engel will stand again for election as chairman of the backbench business committee later in the year. “I did think about it, but I really love it. It’s not often you get a chance to do something brand-new like this.”
She’s currently putting together an ‘end-of-term’ report with her fellow committee members, but she’s not clear yet what it will recommend. “It would be good to have a definite day [for debate] every week,” she suggests. “It doesn’t have to be the same day, but that would help us… Richard Ottaway came to us a while ago and wanted a debate on assisted dying with quite a lot of lead-in time. But we have no ability to do that.”
At the moment, leader of the House Sir George Young bears the brunt of Engel’s frustration. “Every week at business questions, I stand up and whine at George Young – ‘We need more time’ – and it’s getting a bit boring, frankly.”
But overall, Engel is pleased with how the backbench business committee has grown since last July. “There were standing orders, saying how many days the government had to give us. We had the composition of the committee – seven members and a chairperson. But beyond that, there was nothing. We had to make it up as we went along.”
The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts described the committee’s process – where MPs assemble to present their ideas for parliamentary debate – as being like contestants in Dragons’ Den. “The leader of the House calls us a ‘salon’,” Engel adds. “I’m quite touchy about that.
“It could have just been eight people and a chairperson behind closed doors, deciding whatever topics they fancied debating,” she says. “We all agreed that that was wrong. It could have been a lot worse than the system we had before.”
Whips, though, are still not entirely sure what to make of the committee. They don’t pressure her or other members, she insists. Instead, they “kind of joke”.
Joking, but serious? “Yeah,” she agrees. “Obviously, I wouldn’t listen to it either. The really big one was the EU referendum debate. That was very difficult for us. It was difficult for the government and the opposition too… Its consequences are still being felt. I think people are very angry.” But she claims that the whips are “increasingly backing off”.
“We’ve kind of come to an agreement,” she says, “that unless there’s something dramatically against the party’s policy – like the EU referendum debate – they back off… They don’t say anything, but I’d be amazed if they were delighted at our existence. But in 20 years’ time, when David Cameron is not PM any more, I think he’ll look back at the backbench business committee as a real achievement. I don’t think he thinks that now – I think it’s an irritant more than anything else – but in the long term, it will make for a better Parliament and better government.”
Engel has other ideas for reform as well. In the aftermath of the expenses scandal, the Sunday Telegraph listed her very low on their ‘value for money’ MPs, saying: “Despite attending only a third of votes, speaking in only 14 debates and submitting just four questions to ministers, she claimed a total of £149,621 in expenses for travel, home, office and staffing.” But others pointed out that this analysis was unfair, as it did not take her two periods of maternity leave into account.
“It’s really difficult,” says Engel, “but I knew what the job was like, and I made the choice to have children. The hours here are bonkers, but we need to think about working more efficiently as MPs rather than making the hours suit me and my needs with my children. We don’t ask that of high-flying City women or lawyers… Or men.
“But the fact that we sometimes sit until gone midnight doesn’t make for very good law-making.”
It’s well documented that during the heaviest legislative periods MPs have been known to nap in their offices. “It does get like that,” agrees Engel. “You’re so exhausted. MPs feel really hard done by, because the hours they work are ridiculous and people are completely exhausted.”
But, she adds: “You can’t complain about it. We’ve made a rod for our own backs. If we’re honest with people, we can’t do this. There aren’t enough hours in the day. What was really interesting during the expenses scandal was the number of people who didn’t realise that we had to go to London every week. They thought we were in the constituency the whole time… But that lack of understanding of what we do on people’s behalf has quite dangerous implications for democracy.” She interrupts herself, laughing: “That sounds a bit pompous.”
Born in Germany, Engel moved to England at the age of nine with her mother and three younger siblings after her parents’ divorce. “It was really horrible,” she exclaims. “I didn’t speak English. We didn’t have anywhere to stay so we lived in a B&B for a while. It must have been terrible for my mum. She had four tiny children and was a housewife.” Engel’s mother took various jobs to get by, even fruit-picking for a while.
Engel maintained a good relationship with her father, who moved to England later with his new wife. “I went to a boarding school,” she remembers, “and in the fifth form I went off the rails quite dramatically.” She started smoking at 12, something she now describes as her biggest regret. “The school and my parents agreed that it would be better if I didn’t darken their doorstep again.” She laughs loudly. “I think they called it being ‘asked to leave’, but there was no way I could ever go back. Then, I joined the sixth form at The King’s School in Canterbury.”
But she didn’t settle there either. “That’s when I became really political. I just railed against privilege… I thought private schools defined what was unfair about society – how the family you were born in pretty much determined your outcome. I say it now as if it was a very articulate philosophy on social mobility when I was 18. It wasn’t at all.”
I ask what she would tell her 16-year-old self now, if she could. “It’s a bit obvious, but take things less seriously. I was really angry.”
However, this anger did not manifest itself into formal Labour Party politics until much later, via her participation in trade unions. “I travelled around a lot. I lived in Spain… Worked as a journalist… When I came back, I started writing subtitles for Teletext, which was great – you get paid to watch TV all day. It expanded very rapidly, and went overnight from being a small cottage industry to a big company. I ended up unionising it.”
She then joined the Organising Academy of the TUC, worked for the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, now part of Unite, and found her way into the Labour Party. “The political officer at the union introduced me to John Mann, the treasury liaison officer. He employed me.”
Her party role involved finding ways for the unions to influence Labour policy constructively – a function rather prominent in the party at the moment, especially after recent interventions from trade unions. The GMB’s Paul Kenny, for example, wrote to union officials in January: “I have spoken to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to ensure they were aware of how wrong I think the policy they are now following is.”
Engel, who acted as trade union liaison officer to the Labour Party under Tony Blair, is fairly relaxed about this. “It’s politics.” She shrugs. “This sort of thing has always happened and will continue to happen. Ed [Miliband] is the first to say he doesn’t come from a trade union background. He’s much more the intellectual wing of the Labour Party. But the unions need the party and the party needs the unions.”
What about mutterings that unions might sever their affiliation to Labour and set up their own workers’ party? “They’ve always made those threats,” she explains. “It’s part of the negotiation that goes on between the party and the unions… We’re all just getting used to opposition.”
And opposition is proving difficult for some. A recent ICM study suggested Ed Miliband had a net approval rating of minus 17. Engel voted for Ed with no second preference in the Labour leadership election of 2010. How does she feel about her sole choice? “I’ve always had a higher opinion of how he’s doing than a lot of other people have,” she says. “I’ve been really shocked at how personal the attacks are against him. It’s really odd.”
Does Engel think the party – and Ed – will be ready for an election in 2015? “I can’t answer that,” she replies after some thought. “I hope he will. There would be nothing more insane than to have another leadership election. That would guarantee we’ve lost the next election… We’re in danger of looking for a silver-bullet idea that will make everybody love us again – ‘Oh god, that’s what it was!’. It just takes time.”
Engel is not only in the Ed Miliband fan club. She can also be found on the Lords terrace with Maurice Glasman, who she thinks is “brilliant”. What does she make of the rumours that the ‘Labour guru’ has been marginalised by Ed’s office?
“I just think, when you’ve got ideas like that, it won’t be long before he’s brought back in again,” she says with confidence. “That really would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. Ideas need developing and people to talk about them and bat them about. Maurice is an academic. I assume that’s why he was put into the House of Lords.” It is to be expected that the champion of backbenchers would support Lord Glasman’s value.
Although her picture may hang alongside Clegg, Cameron et al, she isn’t like them. It’s not that she doesn’t deserve her place on the wall, it’s just that she’s less constrained by her position than her other picture-perfect companions.
Engel’s supposed to be awkward. She’s there to make sure the 449 MPs who aren’t in government or on the opposition frontbench have a say. And that’s pretty important.
Plus, she’s normal. Her guilty pleasure? “Listening to Radio 4 with a cup of tea… Oh god, that’s so dull. I’m never going to get a boyfriend!”
But she needn’t fear. Natascha Engel is the backbenchers’ poster girl. She’s got plenty of admirers – whips excluded.