Road to the Commons
“It has been my great privilege…”
If you saw any of the coverage of last night’s UK general election counts, you will have heard these words from ousted MPs many times over. And you know what? They meant it.
It was my great privilege to be at an election count last night, and I really do mean that. I’ve worked at local, general and European election counts for 15 years or more, and they never cease to delight. Over those years, I’ve become more and more convinced that there should be some kind of public gallery at election counts, because you will see politicians at their finest – for the most part polite and gracious, and often heartily friendly, to their rivals (though of course there is, in any kind of contest like this, also acrimony to be found).
What impresses me most is that, whatever the colour of their rosettes and however safe their seats, the politicians I’ve seen have been unfailingly humble in the face of those ballot papers, every one of which represents the wishes of a constituent. It’s fashionable to think that politicians in general need reminding of who’s boss.
Honestly, I must say I’ve never met one who did.
The assumed wisdom is that there has been a breakdown in trust in our politicians, after scandals and broken promises, which has led to the rise of smaller parties. Broken promises? It is the job of politicians to have aims, things they want to change. They inevitably find they can’t do all of it, for reasons they had not foreseen or that were beyond their control. That’s life, and it happens to us all. The vast majority of politicians I’ve worked alongside have been extraordinarily hard-working, community-minded, passionate people and I have a huge respect for them and the job they do.
If there is a lack of trust, perhaps it has been overstated, or over-used as a rallying cry by smaller parties who want to present themselves as an alternative. Or maybe it’s true.
Either way, a wonderful trend looks like it has emerged from this election: young people are voting. Sky News is reporting today that six in 10 18-25-year-olds voted this time around, up 20% from a decade ago.
What if they want to do more than just vote? What if they want to engage more deeply in the political process? Students have always taken naturally to activism – they have the energy, imagination, idealism and ambition for making change.
So what’s the career path for someone who wants to enter politics? A politics degree?
There has been a trend towards less social inclusion on the Commons benches in recent years – more MPs who went to independent schools and Oxbridge, more who have worked in business and finance, and fewer with backgrounds in manual labour. In 2010, there were only six MPs who had been miners. Of course, these numbers and proportions fluctuate depending on who wins. The figures from 2010 reflected a greater number of
Conservatives, as they doubtless do today. At the same time, other proportions have shifted – there were four times as many women MPs in 2010 as there were in 1987; the number of black and ethnic minority MPs doubled at the 2010 general election, (read more on this at the Telegraph).
Lawyers still dominate the Commons, though less so than in previous generations. Clearly, studying and practising law acquaints you with the cut and thrust of quick-witted debate, and grounds you in the complexities of procedure and constitutional matters. If you want to make laws, it follows that it helps to be a lawyer.
Journalists also seem to make the transition to politics quite easily.
For better or for worse, there are more “career” politicians now. A 2012 parliamentary report on social change in Britain said:
“As the numbers of MPs with manual and legal backgrounds has fallen, so the number with a political background has increased. In 2010, 14% of MPs from the three main parties had previously been politicians or political organisers, compared to around 3% up to 1979.”
In the early hours of this morning I spoke to Simon Wright, who today is no longer a Liberal Democrat MP after serving the Norwich South constituency for the last five years.
He followed what might be thought of as a “careerist ” trajectory to the Commons. Originally a teacher, he served a term as a North Norfolk district councillor, (where I first met him) then became campaigns officer for Norman Lamb MP (one of the few Liberal Democrats to keep their seats last night). Then he devoted three years to preparing his run at the Norwich South constituency.
He said there is a wide range of roles for young people who want to enter politics.
“MPs employ a range of staff in their offices,” he explained. “There are researcher roles, delivering the information [MPs] need to draft speeches and for discussions in the House of Commons; case workers who keep abreast of constituency correspondence and help people with problems.” There are campaign staff “to assist politicians in getting the message out.”
“The best way to get involved is to start off by volunteering to help the local political party you support, to get to know how campaigning works. There will be many MPs,” he added, “who will offer work experience, or paid internships with the opportunity of having more extended time in a parliamentary office.”
As for the skills and characteristics a prospective politician might want to cultivate, Mr Wright said: “In any political role, a good manner with the public is essential – having a good, professional manner, being respectful of others; to be a good listener, and to respond to issues raised with you. You don’t need a degree in politics – or to be educated in any particular field – but having good written skills is an advantage.”
“Find out whether your university Students’ Union has a party you can support,” he urged, “because often they will have links with the main party, and that can be a good gateway.”
Another Norwich South candidate, David Peel, came to politics along a different path. After years in public relations, he stood this year on a Class War ticket. He polled 96 votes, but it was to make a point. Class War, he said, was formed in 2014 to be “anti-political”, to ruffle feathers and shake up the political establishment (which is, of course, a political act in itself).
Despite the ideological gulf between them, much of Mr Peel’s advice to young people chimed with Mr Wright’s.
“I would urge young people at university to get involved in political societies, but more importantly to get involved in direct action, especially in the community. I think the experience of directly changing things in your community is a much better preparation for a career in politics.”
He said: “The ultimate skill to have in politics is communication. Most importantly, you have to listen. It’s that natural empathy with people that will make your career in politics. Politics is not about contact once every five years with real people – you have to be accountable to the people who elected you every day of the week.”
This need for good communication skills explains, no doubt, why journalists can migrate into politics with relative ease.
Of course, both Mr Wright and Mr Peel were losers in the Norwich South constituency last night. What of the winner, Labour’s Clive Lewis?
He used to be a BBC journalist.
Going to university affords the perfect opportunity for young people to get involved in issues that are important to them. The politicians of the future, one hopes, are the ones who get involved in the issues that are important to other people.
Politics need not be a dirty word. There should be no shame in wanting to serve your community. A political career could be one of the most rewarding there is.
The University of Kent has a good resource for anyone interested in pursuing a career in politics.
UPDATE 11/5/2015 – The Times Higher reports that nine out of 10 new MPs in the Commons are university graduates, 26% are Oxbridge graduates and 28% graduated from another Russell Group university. Read more here (registration/paywall): www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/new-commons-still-has-high-proportion-of-russell-group-graduates/2020147.article
UPDATE 13/5/2015 – The Telegraph identifies the 10 universities attended by the members of the new Cabinet: www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationpicturegalleries/11599498/The-10-universities-attended-by-Cabinet-members.html
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