Working in Parliament: How to get a job & have an impact

by DavidZhang12 min read24th May 20218 comments

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Electoral politicsAll-Party Parliamentary Group for Future GenerationsPolicyCareer choice
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This post is focused on the UK Parliament, though hopefully some of its conclusions will be relevant to other similar systems (e.g. EU, other Parliamentary systems). See here for one of a number of posts about working in the US Congress. I have also written up similar articles for other policy roles which I may post if I get good feedback on this one - please do leave comments or reach out if you have any questions.

My credentials: former Senior Parliamentary Assistant to a backbench Member of Parliament (2.5 years). Before that: parliamentary intern for two MPs, constituency volunteer. Currently: political adviser (/lobbyist) for a development NGO, active in a UK political party.

The objective of this post is to inform readers about:

  1. What working in Parliament involves
  2. How it can have an impact 
  3. What experience and skill set are required or desirable
  4. Future career opportunities after working in Parliament
  5. What the risks are (personal and wider)

What kind of roles are available?

MPs have a taxpayer-funded budget to employ 3-6 employees divided between constituency and parliamentary offices. Some MPs combine these offices. Typically, the roles include:

  • Office manager (aka ‘chief of staff’ or ‘head of office’) - this is the most senior role, based in Parliament, and may or may not be combined with policy duties.
  • (Senior) Parliamentary assistant (aka ‘parliamentary researcher’, or just ‘staffer’) - the title for most policy roles based in Parliament. Sometimes, if the MP has a policy responsibility within the party, this may be called ‘policy adviser’, with a focus on a specific policy area.
  • Media adviser / communications assistant - typically based in Parliament with a comms, digital and/or media focus. These are often merged with the assistant role.
  • Constituency manager - responsible for running the constituency office.
  • (Senior) Caseworker - typically based in the constituency office with a focus on casework, which covers any issues arising from the MP’s local constituents.
  • Diary manager / administrator - often this role is merged with one of the assistant/manager roles. It can be either in either office.
  • Intern - typically based in Parliament for a month or so, will perform more administrative duties but may help with some policy work or casework.

What does the role involve?

This post will focus  on parliamentary assistants, who provide a wide range of research, communication and administrative support for the MP’s parliamentary work. They tend not to focus on constituency casework. These are also likely to be the most impactful and competitive roles, due to the scope to influence policy and progress to other policy-relevant roles within and outside Parliament.

Parliamentary assistants' tasks include:

  •  Writing briefings and speeches for MPs ahead of debates, events and select committee sessions
  • Monitoring legislation, debates and political issues for opportunities for the MP to intervene and impact policy
  • Managing press relations: writing press releases, building relationships with journalists, preparing notes for interviews
  • Meeting with lobbyists, constituents and campaigners to hear their concerns and translate into parliamentary action
  • Managing the MP’s diary
  • Writing letters to other MPs, lobby groups or constituents on policy issues
  • Setting up and running All-Party Groups on specific issues
  • Managing social media, emails, website and online communications
  • Developing policy for the party, particularly if the MP has a specific role (e.g. minister or shadow minister)
  • Attending events and conferences with or on behalf of the MP

Work can vary significantly day-to-day, and may be responsive to big political developments (such as Brexit), as well as small ones (such as a minister resigning or an internal party division). Work will be based in an office in Westminster, though this may become more home-based following the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced staffers to work from home in 2020.

The workday might typically be from about 10am-6pm, as Parliament tends to sit late and can finish late. Fridays can be an effective day off as MPs focus on their constituency work, though Tuesdays and Wednesdays can be very busy, as this is when most oral questions, select committees and other meetings are, including Prime Minister’s Questions. Parliament is in recess for much of the year (roughly tracking school holidays), and these times are significantly quieter.

Salary

Overall range: £16,000 - £40,000
Typical salary: £25,000 (Parliamentary Assistant)

Intern: unpaid, or £16,000 - 22,000
Parliamentary assistant: £22,000 - £33,000 
Senior Parliamentary assistant / office manager: £33,000 - £45,000

Pay scales are set by an independent organisation called IPSA, and bounds apply to all MPs, though MPs can choose what salary to set within them.

How to apply

Jobs are nearly always listed on the Work4MP Jobs website, where you can filter by party. However, it is not unusual for MPs to hire people they know without going through an open process; typically these are interns or people the MP has worked with before.

Applications typically require a CV and cover letter. This is followed by an interview and/or written exercises for shortlisted candidates, generally with the MP and their most senior staffer.

The roles are competitive, circa 200 applicants per role, though individuals with a very wide variety of skills and experience tend to apply. If you meet the skills and experience criteria mentioned later, you might well find yourself in the top 15% of applicants. Jobs with Conservative and SNP MPs are generally less competitive than those with Labour or Lib Dem MPs, due to the ratio of young, qualified applicants to the number of MPs in these parties.

How can this role be impactful?

Working for an MP is most impactful as an early-career role, and is unlikely to be the best option for one’s entire career. Most staffers are between 20-35 years old. However, as an early career option, I believe it is unrivalled for those considering working in politics, and a very decent option for those interested in more general policy work (including the civil service).

The direct impact of working for an MP derives from the MP’s own potential impact and the staffer’s ability to influence what the MP does. Examples include:

  • Advising the MP ahead of important votes, on legislation, amendments and motions. E.g. votes on whether to launch military strikes, renew Trident, reduce aid spending. In my 2.5 years in Parliament, I had at least two votes that I would consider to be 'very high impact'.
  • Supporting the MP to work on higher priority cause areas, such as longtermist issues like biosecurity and AI, or high-impact issues such as animal welfare. This might be through committees, all-party groups, media campaigning, party policy development or amendments to legislation. MPs often discuss their prioritisation decisions with their staffer. There may also be opportunities to influence within the cause area; e.g. an MP interested in animal welfare may have to choose between focusing on farming (high impact) versus pets (lower impact).
  • Providing a platform to individuals working in high-impact policy areas, by introducing them to the MP, inviting them to speak in select committee or other meetings, or providing the MP with their research and briefing.
  • Influence over the MP’s tone, rhetoric and messaging in speeches, briefings and other communications, which can shift the policy debate in a more impactful direction; e.g. discouraging inflammatory rhetoric towards China might reduce the chance of geopolitical conflict.
  • Preventing extremist policy, by challenging the MP if they behave in ways that undermines democratic processes, reduces trust in politics, or polarises the political debate.

The impactfulness of these roles will depend on the MP’s own level of influence, which will depend on (and can be assessed by):

  • Whether they have any formal roles in the party (e.g. a minister or shadow minister)
  • Whether their party is in government, or has a chance of being in government 
  • Which select committees they sit on, if any
  • Which issues they focus on 
  • How well-known and popular they are within and outside of Parliament

It is difficult to say which of these matters most. For instance, a backbencher who leads the All-Party Group on Artificial Intelligence may have far more impact than a well-known minister in a relatively unimportant government department.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that staffers can develop good, trusting relationships with their MPs and become a key source of advice on politics and policy. It is therefore very plausible that an MP’s staffer becomes one of the main people they listen to when making decisions on any of the above.

The indirect impact of working for an MP is reflected in the future career prospects, described further below.

What are the risks?

The main risks are political and reputational. A staffer is somewhat dependent on the political career and public image of their MP, and this is largely outside of their control. If an MP does something scandalous, foolish or just unpopular, this can affect the staffers’ prospects, though in most cases employers understand that a staffer is not responsible for their MP’s actions.

There is also a risk of the staffer behaving in such a way that damages relations with the MP, such as disclosing a secret or disagreeing with them on an important issue. Given the importance of good relationships in these roles, this can be damaging to future career prospects.

Other risks arise from the insecurity of working in Parliament: the election cycle means that there is a risk of MPs standing down or losing their seat, at least every five years. Roles are often fixed term, and some MPs can be quite unpredictable in their hiring and firing decisions, though in practice it is difficult and rare for staff to be fired. The lack of a robust HR system in Parliament can add to a sense of insecurity.

What sort of skills are involved?

Parliamentary researchers tend to be generalists, with a broad skillset encompassing communication skills (written, verbal and interpersonal), strategic skills, some research skills and some administrative skills. Adaptability and an ability to switch quickly between different tasks, respond to unexpected developments and meet tight deadlines is important. Basic digital skills (social media, website editing) are a big bonus, not least because MPs are often especially dependent on their staffers in this area.

Compared to other roles in the policy world, working for an MP is not very research-heavy, is unlikely to require presenting or public speaking, is not public-facing, involves working in a small team. Staffers’ work is very much based around what their MP is focused on - this can make it varied and interesting, but it may also reduce the amount of autonomy individuals have over their work.

What experience is required?

Staffers are nearly always expected to have an undergraduate degree. It is common for staffers to have studied politics, economics, history or similar humanities and social science subjects, typically at Russell Group universities, though there are plenty of exceptions.

The best experience is prior work for an MP, even if this is just an internship, volunteering in a constituency office, or shadowing your local MP. It is better for that experience to be with an MP of the same party, though it is not impossible to switch between parties early on in one’s career, especially if one can provide good reasons for doing so. For example, if you interned with your local Lib Dem MP because there were no Conservative MPs near where you live, this might not be an issue for a job with a Conservative MP. It is easiest to get this kind of experience by offering to work unpaid for an MP, though sometimes MPs will advertise formal internships or offer to pay expenses.

The next best experience is anything related to policy, such as a think tank internship, working in the policy department of an NGO, a public affairs internship or policy work in the civil service.

It is possible to be overqualified for work in Parliament. MPs often prefer younger, more flexible staff, so it may be difficult to apply as a more senior civil servant or policy professional, or someone who has spent 5+ years in an established profession, such as teaching.

What are the future career prospects?

Parliamentary experience is valued across the Westminster policy world, and the UK Parliament is a well-respected global brand. Experience working in Parliament can be good experience for any of the following routes:

  • Lobbying or public affairs for an NGO or campaign (very common) 
  • Policy work for an NGO (very common) 
  • Agency or private sector public affairs (very common)
  • Working in a think tank, either in research or comms
  • Working for a political party, e.g. as a political adviser
  • Civil service, either Fast Stream, HEO or SEO 
  • Law - training to be a barrister or solicitor
  • Working for Parliament itself, as a clerk or policy expert 
  • Media - typically politics-focused journalism, but not exclusively
  • PR, advertising and marketing (less common) 
  • International policy work, either for an IO or NGO (less common) 
  • Academia, often politics-focused (less common)

With the exception of law, where parliamentary experience might help to get a mini-pupillage or similar work experience, working in Parliament is likely to be less useful for entering established professions, and the time could be better spent following the ordinary routes into these careers (e.g. accounting, management consulting, anything medical or scientific).

Other relevant information

Parliament is a fun place to work. It has impressive buildings, an energetic atmosphere and plenty of places to socialise. Staffers are likely to rub shoulders with other MPs, researchers, journalists and lobbyists, which can form a useful network for the future.

That said, it is also not uncommon to hear reports of bullying, long hours and high pressure, which can easily arise in political environments that depend a lot on trust, discretion and personal relationships. This can make it a particularly difficult environment for young people, women and vulnerable people in minority groups, and can lead to poor mental and physical health. Recently there have been increased efforts to make Parliament more inclusive, to improve HR and provide support for those who need it - including free counselling and an on-site nurse.

Election time can add pressure to staffers and lead them to do a very different kind of job, namely political campaigning. This may also mean moving temporarily to the MP’s constituency. It is worth noting, however, that MPs are not legally allowed to require their staff to campaign for them, and the expectation is stronger for constituency-based staff.

Are you interested in working in Parliament?

Compared to the civil service and academic policy work, there are very few EAs working in Parliament. I only know of a handful who have worked for MPs. As far as I know, there are no publicly EA-aligned MPs, though a number of MPs and Lords have joined the All Party-Parliamentary Group on Future Generations. It seems fair to say that this avenue is neglected, even within EA policy circles. 

Given the potential opportunity for high impact, as well as the informational value to the community of having more individuals exploring this career route, I would strongly encourage people to consider work in Parliament. This is especially true if you meet some of the skills and experience criteria described above. I would be very happy to speak to anyone who is considering this as a career route!

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8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:17 PM
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Thanks for writing this. I too think more people should consider this.

I agree almost entirely with what you've written, and I'd just like to add a couple of comments drawing on my own perspective -  I worked as a Parliamentary Researcher for a year after finishing my undergraduate degree.

First, your impact really depends on how useful you are to the MP. Ideally, you want to work for an ambitious up-and-coming MP, who will be active and will rely on their staff. If you work for a government minister, they will focus on their policy brief, and you'll be mostly redundant: they will have civil service staff, and sometimes a special advisor (which is a political appointment paid for by the central party), who will have policy domain expertise that you don't. In my case, I  worked for an MP who unexpectedly became a government minister at the end of my first week. I ended up doing very little work for my whole year, let alone impactful work. If you work for an unambitious or a very experienced MP - perhaps someone who has been there 20 years - then they may not be that active, or have as much use for you, or both.

I recognise you may not have much choice in who you work for - the jobs are very competitive - but I would advise someone to think twice about taking the job if their only option is to for an MP who won't use your labour. If I'd known how my year would turn out, I would have looked hard for something else.

Second, regarding risks, it is the case that your impact depends on how your MP does - if they rise up the ranks, they can carry you with them, and you will get associated with being in their bit of the party. However, if your MP does something stupid, it doesn't seem to cause you reputational damage. I knew several staffers whose MPs got into trouble. People felt sorry for them, rather than that they were tarnished by association. 

Thanks, these are great insights and I hadn't considered the first before. I'd always assumed one's impact would improve if one's MP became a minister (albeit depending on the policy brief), partly because the (very few) friends I know whose MPs were promoted saw their own work become more interesting and important, and some became political advisers. Perhaps a big factor is whether the new minister is allocated spads and whether they promote their parliamentary staff to these roles. I think a lot of spads are former assistants, but that doesn't imply that assistants to ministers have a good shot at becoming spads (though I still assume they'd have a better shot than pretty much anyone else!). I am considering doing a similar post for political adviser roles though I have less experience in that area.

Yep, SpAds bit is key - If my employer hadn't got a special advisor, I might have been useful

On the other hand, this isn't as much of a constraint in opposition. Political Advisors are like senior senior parliamentary researchers - everyone's part of one (tiny!) team.

Thank you for writing this! 

One question I have for you:

How do you think a UK parliamentary assistant role compares to a role doing policy work at an NGO working at a more international level /  in a less affluent country?

Hey! I'm not sure I have the right experience or knowledge to make the comparative claim, but it would certainly be worth considering the following:

  • I've heard that international diplomacy (e.g. at the UN) is difficult for an individual to influence, and lots of big decisions come down to domestic considerations anyway 
  • In terms of NGOs, I think advocacy can be a great route, though more impactful if it is aimed at an influential government (the US, EU, UK)
  • In global terms the UK is a significant player, especially in some priority cause areas - e.g. global health policy, international development, military / great power conflict. You are probably more likely to have influence over these issues from London than from a developing country's political system.
  • Whether or not you go for UK or another political system is probably 99% determined by whether you are from the UK. It is very difficult for French people to break into UK politics, and vice versa. 

Hope that's helpful!

Yes it is, thank you!