Top 10 tips for surviving as a parliamentary researcher
Working for an MP is, for most parliamentary researchers, a great job. Your job gives you access to the corridors of power, you see the Prime Minister regularly and you have words you’ve written read out in the House of Commons. But having such an important role brings with it many stresses and strains. As someone who began working for an MP on his first day in Parliament, to losing my position at the 2015 general election, here are my top tips for surviving as a parliamentary researcher.
Your first major hurdle is getting the job in the first place. For every parliamentary researcher position advertised (usually on w4mpjobs.org) there will be between 150-300 applicants. Make your CV stand out by volunteering in some form of political activity. This will not only help you secure a permanent, paid position in an MP's office, but it'll provide valuable insight into the varied tasks expected of a parliamentary researcher. Don't feel though that this experience must be gain through an official placement in Westminster - get involved locally whenever possible. The local, mayoral and European elections next May are great opportunities to learn about politics, show your commitment to the party and meet useful contacts.
2. Try to pick a good MP. Google the MP before applying; certain ones have a reputation for being a bad employer. Some bully their staff, others make them perform menial jobs such as collect dry-cleaning, babysitting or arranging parts of their wedding. I know of one parliamentary researcher who was sacked by post-it note. You want to work for an MP who shares your values and interests; this way you will get far more out of the job.
3. Make friends. How to be a Parliamentary Researcher is the first book ever to focus on the important work parliamentary researchers do. Until now there has been little for new researchers to read to learn about the role. There is some formal training available, but often new researchers don't have the time. On day one you can find yourself thrown in at the deep end. As well as reading How to be a Parliamentary Researcher, you should prioritise making friends with the other staff working on your corridor, and be proactive about hanging out in ‘Sports’ (the staff bar in Parliament). Don't be afraid to knock on other office’s doors, introduce yourself and ask for their help. Everyone has gone through the same battle to understand how Parliament really works on the inside.
4. Build a strong relationship with your boss. As well as your employer, your boss is likely to become a friend too. You work very closely together, your learn about their ambitions and they rely on you to help them achieve these. Your MP will want you to be loyal, work hard, put them first and support them to provide the best service they can to their constituents. Demonstrate these skills and they will give you more responsibility, which will ultimately enhance your CV for when you decide to move on.
5. Build strong relationships with the constituency staff. Working for an MP is not a solo activity, it's a team game. There can't be any gaps in knowledge or responsibilities between the two offices.
6. Plan, deliver, evaluate. You need to always be organised and looking ahead for emerging issues and opportunities for your boss to be involved in. Take the time to evaluate the speeches you write, the media stories you create and the digital content you publish to learn about what worked best and where improvements can be made next time.
7. Digital is crucial. David Plouffe, 2008 Obama campaign manager and now Chief Adviser at Uber says “so many people are living their lives through technology – how can we expect their interactions with politics to be the one exception”? Digital matters, not just for broadcasting but for listening. Get digital right (listen, tailor and gather as much data as possible) and you can succeed in converting high numbers of constituents into active and vocal supporters.
8. Keep ahead of policy debates and Westminster gossip. Read the news, sign up to the daily emails from leading lobby journalists (Paul Waugh's ‘Waughzone’ for the Huffington Post is my favourite), have a dedicated Twitter list of lobby reporters, listen to Today, Today in Parliament and the Westminster Hour and skim through all your party's frontbench briefings and policy papers.
9. Build a network outside Parliament. You will rely on the help, advice and expertise of lobbyists, think tanks, charities and businesses every day. The Westminster Village is a place where who you know matters as much as what you know. Making strong contacts with these outside organisations will help you secure your next job outside of Parliament.
10. Do something extra. There are thousands of ex-parliamentary researchers working around the Westminster Village. Try to do something in your role (for example, run a brilliant media or digital campaign, organise phone banks, develop new policies that receive national recognition) to make your CV stand out.
Finally, it’s a huge privilege to work inside Parliament. Make the most of your opportunity, work hard but have fun too.
Robert Dale worked as a researcher for former Labour MP Andy Sawford and is the author of How To Be A Parliamentary Researcher.