In this guest post, my boyfriend James, a UK Parliamentary researcher, explains how he managed to land his dream job in Westminster. While there is no guaranteed route into working for a Member of Parliament, there are a number of steps that many people take to get to that point.
It’s difficult to pin down the day I decided that I wanted to study politics. But I remember exactly when I decided I wanted to work in Parliament.
It was summer 2009. I was finishing up my third year of university – just one remained until I had to enter the ‘real world’. I didn’t fancy working in a supermarket over the summer and had been emailing my MP every week for six months to ask for internship opportunities. After many emails, May rolled around. I decided to try one last time – and it worked. I was to meet the MP then start a three week placement in Westminster. Within 10 minutes of my first day, while being shown around the estate, we walked past the Prime Minister of the day, Gordon Brown. I was hooked.
I would later graduate in 2010 but not before I had campaigned on the MP's re-election campaign. He had increased his vote again. I’m no fan of campaigning, if I’m honest. The area I was born and grew up in is a safe seat and has been essentially since 1701. We’re not used to door knocking. Every time I knock on someone’s door I feel like I am disturbing them. It also doesn’t help when you encounter someone who detests your party (I work for a Liberal Democrat). The party is built on great campaigners though – Lib Dems are known and praised for their council-level work. It’s part of the job – MPs want to know that you will work hard for them and delivering leaflets on a rainy Tuesday night is one way to show that you’re committed.
I didn’t leap right into politics after I graduated. I worked with the local council on a graduate scheme for a year. During this time, I maintained contact with the MP through Facebook. When my graduate scheme ran out and there were no vacancies, I found myself unemployed for a number of months. I worked with the local media as freelance to get some experience – interviewing politicians like Scottish Tory party leader Ruth Davidson along the way – and in November I decided to Facebook the MP to see if there were any internship opportunities available. To my amazement, he offered me a 3-month internship which would start in March 2012, but told me I could do one day a week in his constituency from January to get into the swing of things.
This is it, I thought, my ticket to parliament. Once you’re in, you’re in – right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. My second internship in Parliament was brilliant – I had a security pass for the estate and so could explore without an escort and bring in my friends for tours. The actual work wasn’t always hugely engaging. Most of an intern's job is replying to constituents who write in about any number of issues. Some people subscribe to every campaign going particularly through 38 Degrees (a campaigns organisation hated by researchers) while others will handwrite pages of letters.
Despite the occasional monotony of answering letters, there is a buzz about Westminster like nothing else. Breaking news stories start here. People are fascinated by what goes on inside the walls of the place. Celebrities and high-profile individuals pass through the building every day. I met the Dalai Lama one morning.
It’s a great place for graduates too – most MPs' staff are under 28. There is a great community between the researchers. We frequent the Sports and Social pub in Parliament (where you can get a pint for less than £3, which is amazing in London). We also go out together for dinner or even more drinks in nearby bars.
The problem with internships is that they have to end sometime. I had my contract extended by one month and scrabbled to find a job. I had a few interviews but was unsuccessful. I didn’t want to leave. I had just had a taste of London and Parliament. I didn’t want to return to Shetland, to go back to unemployment or to a job with no prospects. As luck would have it, the MP had decided to create a new post in the Shetland office and offered the promoted position to me. It was bittersweet – returning to isolation in Shetland but with a good job.
The job itself was quite interesting – I got to do media work and accompany the MP on visits to take photographs. I still wanted to be in Parliament though and kept an eye on W4MP – the main job site for anyone looking to work for an MP. December rolled around and I received the best news possible – the MP's London-based researcher had accepted a new post and was to leave in January. If there was ever an opportunity to get a job in Parliament, surely this was it. After some deliberation, the MP offered me the post and I accepted. I moved down before New Year.
That was 19 months ago. The lifespan of someone in this job is about two and a half years. Why? It’s not a career – it’s just a job. It’s a good one, sure. It has perks – prestige, cheap pints, good community. But there’s not much scope for promotion once you’re here. And that’s bad news if you are looking to develop your career. I have had two interns work under me (as I did in 2012) and both have gone on to get jobs which pay considerably better than my own one. Sure, pay isn’t everything – but in London it’s a massive factor.
The job can also hinder your career development because you don’t specialise in any particular topic. I have to know as much about energy policy as I do about immigration policy. I have an approximate knowledge of many things – anyone who has worked for a few years in a sector you want to break into has a considerable advantage. And where do you go from Parliament? Most end up in public affairs – the friendly name for lobbying. Lobby groups want people with connections in Parliament and researchers are primed for that.
When people do leave, they do so with a heavy heart. It’s a tough place to leave. You get a lot of freedom especially if you work for a government minister. There is no real line management because they don’t have the time to look over your shoulder – you have to be able to take the initiative and run with it. It’s not an easy job by any stretch – I’m often in at 7am and home after 7pm.
Looking back, I don’t think I will regret any of the time I spent here. I’ve met some amazing people and had some unique experiences. It’s a good stepping stone on to brighter things.
In summary, my top tips:
· Contact your MP to ask for opportunities, and be prepared to be offered voluntary work
· Seize any chance and work hard to impress – do the 12-hour shifts, and be eager to work!
· Remain in contact with the MP between volunteering – Facebook is good for this.
· Volunteer on campaigns (re-election, delivering leaflets etc)
· Keep an eye on W4MP – new jobs are advertised every day.
I hope that the article was useful. I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments
As well as working for an MP, James is the Director of a charity, Get-Well Gamers UK, which redistributes second-hand consoles and computer games to hospitals so that sick kids can play with them.
Originally from Shetland, James loves travelling and can't get enough of life in London.
To connect with Get-Well Gamers, or to donate your old games, click here.