Becoming a Member of Parliament: potential routes & impact

by DavidZhang19 min read28th Jun 2021No comments

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PolicyElectoral politicsCareer 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. Australia, other parliamentary systems). I am not a Member of Parliament, but I have worked in Parliament for various MPs and I now work with them as a lobbyist for an NGO, which includes running an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). 

I wrote a similar post for those interested in working for an MP, which I recommend as a great first step  Note also various posts on working in Congress and 80k's articles on UK politics and getting elected to Congress.

The objective of this post is to inform readers about:

  1. What being an MP involves
  2. How it can have an impact
  3. What experience and skill set are required or desirable
  4. What the risks are (personal and wider)

My general view is that more EAs should consider working in elected politics, as this seems to be a route with potential for high impact. Even if it turns out that the risks outweigh the benefits, it seems worthwhile for some members of the community to pursue it, and for many more to at least consider whether they might be suitable. Very keen for comments and feedback - especially where and when my comments on the UK context might be applicable or differ from other countries' systems.

What kind of roles are available?

There are various elected roles available in the UK, including: 

  • Member of Parliament (MP) 
  • Member of a devolved legislature - e.g. Member of the Welsh Assembly (AM) 
  • Mayor of a city region - e.g. London
  • Local councillor 
  • Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC)

Some legislature members are appointed rather than elected, namely: 

  • Members of the House of Lords

This post, however, focuses solely on Members of Parliament, who sit in the House of Commons. This is generally the most senior and impactful of the above roles. 

MPs can be further divided into the following roles:

  • Prime Minister / Leader of the Opposition 
  • Secretary of State / shadow 
  • Minister (junior) / shadow 
  • Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) / shadow
  • Party spokesperson 
  • Backbencher (an MP without a formal role in their party)
  • Select committee chair / member 

The senior roles listed - Prime Minister and Secretary of States, followed by ministers - are generally the most impactful roles. Much of the expected value of becoming an MP will arise from having a chance of obtaining one of these roles.

The roles are not entirely mutually exclusive - select committee chairs and members are typically backbenchers, though MPs in smaller parties may have formal roles while also sitting on select committees.

What does the role involve?

Members of Parliament are elected by voters in a parliamentary constituency to represent that area. They tend to also be members of political parties. Their work is therefore divided between (1) duties arising from their constituency, (2) duties arising from their party, and (3) roles within the House of Commons. The kinds of task arising from these three areas are outlined in more detail below.

(1) Constituency 

  • Managing casework - providing support to individual constituents’ issues, such as communicating with housing authorities, assisting visa applications or legal cases. 
  • Responding to policy letters from constituents - either lobbying on their behalf, or explaining individual or party policy to them. 
  • Running constituency surgeries - events (up to once a week) where constituents can alert the MP to individual issues or lobby them on policy.
  • Raising local issues in Parliament - a wide range of issues, e.g. the closure of a local train station, local homelessness statistics, investment in flooding infrastructure, gang violence, the impact of stamp duty on young people, the impact of pensions policy on elderly constituents.
  • Attending constituency events, such as primary school assemblies or the opening of a new hospital.

(2) Party

  • Formal role: MPs may have a specific role in the parliamentary party, such as being a minister, shadow minister or spokesperson for a policy area. If their party is in government, this means being responsible for an area of government policy or a civil service department. This is described in more detail later.
  • Debates and questions: asking questions to ministers on behalf of the party, contributing to debates, tabling debates or motions on party policy.
  • Legislation: speaking in bill debates or bill committees, tabling amendments, voting for or against legislation and amendments 
  • Campaigning: in national elections or on party policy issues, engaging the media and supporting colleagues in other constituencies 
  • Policy development: MPs may be involved in internal party commissions or working groups to develop policy in particular areas, or may work with party groups (such as the Labour Campaign for International Development, or China Research Group) to influence party policy in a specific directions.
  • Local party: campaigning in the constituency or nearby areas - as often as once a week, and supporting local councillors. Attending local party meetings, as often as once a month.

(3) House

  • Select committees: MPs, typically backbenchers, can stand in internal parliamentary elections to chair select committees, or they may be appointed (depending on the roles available, which are proportionate to party size) by their party to be members. Select committees scrutinise the policy of government departments and develop proposals following inquiries and evidence sessions. Chairs work with the clerks and other committee members to arrange committee meetings and the subjects of inquiries. 
  • Legislation committees: MPs, typically backbenchers, may be asked to sit in delegated legislation committees or public bill committees. MPs will be able to draft and table amendments to these pieces of legislation, though are likely to be under instruction from their party whip. 
  • Chairing debates: MPs can stand to be the speaker, who chairs parliamentary debates; one of the deputy speakers; or to sit on the panel of chairs, who chair more minor debates.
  • Representing the UK Parliament in international forums: as a member of the Council of Europe, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, or similar.

MPs with ministerial or party responsibilities

MPs can be appointed as ministers or shadow ministers, with responsibility for areas of policy within their party. For those in government, this is a major increase in responsibility, as ministers will be in charge of departments of civil servants and are responsible for delivering policy. This comes with additional staff (a civil service private office) and special advisers. For those in opposition, there is less responsibility but also less support, and the shadow minister’s focus will be more on developing party policy and holding the government to account. The most senior and influential roles are in cabinet or shadow cabinet. Ministers are likely to be based permanently in London and they are also busier than other MPs - with evenings and weekends likely to be taken up by work.

Responsibilities for ministers and shadow include: 

  • Making executive decisions on party policy. For those in (shadow) cabinet, this will include major policy decisions outside of their policy area. For example, the Secretary of State for Transport can discuss Covid-19 policy in cabinet with the Prime Minister and other ministers. For more junior ministers, this decision making power will be restricted to their departmental policy area.
  • Representing the party (or government) in Parliament. This includes publicly speaking on behalf of the party in oral questions, legislation, debates and statements; and also private meetings, written questions and as a witness to select committees. 
  • Representing the party (or government) to the media; including TV interviews, debates, press conferences, opinion pieces and quotes. 
  • Representing the party (or government) to the public; including meeting with industry, civil society, policy experts and think tanks to develop policy in the minister’s relevant policy area; meeting with international counterparts, diplomats; (for government) representing the UK in international forums.

Nature of the work 

For all MPs, 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 is divided between time spent in the constituency and in Parliament. For MPs representing seats far from London, this can mean long journeys each week. Most MPs have accommodation in London and in their constituency; this and travel costs are covered by MPs’ expenses.

Being an MP is extremely demanding and there are reports of poor mental and physical health, particularly due to the competitive and individual nature of Parliament (MPs rarely work in teams, and even allies can be competitors), combined with the long hours spent away from home. 

Job security depends very much on how marginal the MP’s seat is and the popularity of their party. In theory any MP could lose their seat at the next election. The result of this is that while many MPs can remain in post for 20+ years, others will only survive one parliamentary term. It is also not uncommon to voluntarily stand down at election time.

Salary

Overall range: £80,000 - £160,000 (plus expenses)

Typical salary: £85,000 (backbench MP with some House responsibilities)

Pay is determined by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). The 2020 base salary is £81,932, but MPs can earn more by taking on responsibilities such chairing a select committee. Ministers also earn more, with the highest paid being the Prime Minister, whose salary is just under £160,000. MPs are allowed to earn additional income from businesses or providing consultancy advice, though this may reflect badly with voters, and such interests must be declared.

How to become an MP

MPs are elected by voters in a constituency. The first step is being selected by a party to stand in a General Election. While individuals can stand as independent candidates or represent smaller parties, the vast majority of MPs belong to one of the three largest parties: the Conservatives, Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Of these, only Labour and the Conservatives have a chance of being a major partner in government, though the SNP could be a good option for individuals in Scotland.

For all the main parties, the selection process involves a combination of: 

  1. Party democracy - where ordinary party members, typically those in the relevant constituency, have a say
  2. Party bureaucracy - where party authorities choose between candidates

Sitting MPs are given the right to re-stand for their party in their constituency, which means that parties do not need to select candidates for all seats. Of these, there will be a smaller number of ‘target seats’, where they believe they have a better chance of winning. 

The Conservatives have a list of priority individuals to stand in available seats, and the main challenge is getting onto this list and climbing higher up it. Labour has an application process which involves listing one’s preferred seats. Longlisted candidates are then interviewed by both national and local party representatives, and constituency Labour parties (CLPs) then choose between shortlisted candidates.

For all parties, the following will improve one’s chances of being selected:

  • Local connection: constituents like to vote for candidates who have a link to the local area. Ideally, they will have grown up there and worked there. This is more important for marginal seats.
  • Active involvement in the party. This indicates a high level of commitment to the party’s cause and an understanding of the party’s ideology and structures. It also means the candidate is likely to have allies and networks that will help them get elected and perform the job well. Examples of involvement may include working as a political adviser or leading a campaign or faction within the party. For Labour, trade union experience is also valued.
  • Campaigning ability. For marginal seats, this is particularly important. Evidence may be demonstrated by successfully standing in local elections or running the campaigns of other candidates.
  • Loyalty: parties need to be reassured that candidates are ideologically aligned, and furthermore, may want to ensure that candidates are aligned with the right faction of the party, or on specific issues - e.g. Boris Johnson demanded that all Conservative candidates in 2019 supported his Brexit deal. 
  • Popular appeal: candidates need to be able to win over the public, both in the election and after they become an MP. This might be demonstrated in communication skills, background or history (e.g. a charismatic NHS doctor is likely to have more public appeal than a posh banker).
  • A clean record: ideally, a lack of skeletons in the closet, controversial tweets, inflammatory news stories or sex scandals. 
  • Skills and experience relevant to being an MP: parties are more likely to select someone who would make a good minister, has public speaking skills, is good at policy work, is highly organised, etc.; though these considerations are likely to rank below the others listed. For marginal seats, the priority is to win the seat, rather than elect a good MP. For safe seats, the priority is to get particularly desirable individuals into Parliament.

Candidates may begin to build up relevant experience long before election time. Many MPs have been active in their parties since their student days. A typical age to begin trying to get selected is in one’s 30s, and a typical age to become an MP is between 35-50. The experience required is discussed in more detail later.

How can MPs have an impact?

MPs can be highly impactful. This is primarily due to the ability of MPs to shape policy which may become law, which can have wide-reaching and long lasting effects. Examples include:

  • Introducing a positively impactful policy in a high priority area, or removing a harmful policy. 
  • Helping to change the party’s stance towards an issue in a more positive and impactful direction.
  • Influencing the party leader’s policy decisions through one’s own (shadow) ministerial policy area, and/or as a member of the (shadow) cabinet.
  • Making decisions on important votes, on legislation, amendments and motions; choosing when to tactically rebel. E.g. votes on whether to support the Brexit deal, renew Trident, reduce aid spending.
  • Working on higher priority cause areas, seeking an appointment to a more impactful department. 
  • Bringing attention to high-impact policy areas, providing a platform to individuals working in these areas.
  • Shifting the policy debate in a more impactful direction through messaging and tone; e.g. not using inflammatory rhetoric towards China might reduce the chance of geopolitical conflict.
  • Preventing extremist policy, by challenging other MPs or party leadership 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 MP’s own level of influence, which will depend on (and can be assessed by):

  • Whether they have party or departmental responsibilities and the policy area for which they have responsibility
  • How much of a relationship they have with other senior (shadow) cabinet members - particularly the party leader / Prime Minister, and (shadow) Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Whether they are in government or opposition  
  • How well-known and popular they are within and outside of Parliament 

The impact of MPs may be years in the making, and the impact may not always be obvious at the time. For instance, MPs who left the Labour Party to from the unsuccessful Social Democratic Party in the 1980s may have felt that this was unimpactful, yet it also may have contributed to changes in the Labour Party which allowed Tony Blair to become leader and Prime Minister, an event which has defined British politics ever since. This example also demonstrates the high level of uncertainty that surrounds having an impact as an MP.

What are the risks?

The most common risk for hopeful MPs is that they are not elected, or that their career as an MP or minister is short-lived. This is primarily due to the competitiveness of the roles and the near-complete dependence on external political factors, such as the timing of elections, the vacancy of seats and the popularity of one’s party.

If one is successful in becoming an MP or (shadow) minister for a decent amount of time, the risks are that one’s time and energies are consumed by lower-priority areas, such as constituency campaigning, casework and working on low-priority policy areas, perhaps as part of a party role. 

There are further reputational and political risks to being an MP. Journalists and other politicians may try to deliberately defame or damage one’s career, and politicians can fall quickly in and out of public favour, either through their own doing, or simply by being associated with particular MPs, policy proposals or party factions.

A further risk for EAs interested in pursuing this route, as with any public-facing role, is reputational damage to the effective altruism movement. If effective altruism becomes associated with a particular party or ideology, this could be bad for the long run impact of EA ideas on society. EA also risks being misrepresented by politicians or journalists, either deliberately or inadvertently. For these reasons, EA-sympathetic MPs ought to be very careful about how (if at all) they advertise their involvement with EA.

What sort of skills are involved?

Unlike other roles in the policy world, MPs do not have a consistent skillset, and there are no particular skills required for the role. While many MPs have strong communication skills and enjoy giving speeches and working with the media, others focus more on policy detail, writing and behind-the-scenes influence. It is not necessary to be an excellent orator, extrovert or media personality to become an MP, and indeed some of the most impactful MPs may not be the most high-profile.

That being said, there are some trends: MPs tend to be highly ambitious and adaptable individuals, who can cope well with unexpected changes, take advantage of new opportunities and build good relationships with a wide range of individuals - from constituents to Prime Ministers. MPs tend to be good campaigners who know how to win local and national elections; though this skill is generally developed by standing to be an MP or other representative, failing, and trying again. MPs tend not to be policy experts, but the ability to absorb, condense and understand a wide range of policy, and in particular its political implications, will be helpful, though it is less useful (in terms of becoming an MP) than campaigning and communications skills.

What experience is required?

The most important experience is previous political activity within the relevant party. This demonstrates that the candidate is trustworthy and ideologically aligned, and is also an indicator for relevant skills, such as campaigning ability. The exact kind of political activity can vary; from local campaigning or being a local councillor, to advising a (shadow) minister in Parliament, to helping to lead a group affiliated with the party (such as the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, or Bright Blue think tank). 

Local experience is increasingly valued by all parties, as constituents tend to prefer to elect someone with a local connection. This is particularly important in swing-seats. However, this experience can be difficult to create: a candidate who grew up in the local area through no choice of her own may stand a better chance of selection than an outsider who has worked as a councillor in that area for 20 years, but has the wrong accent. 

Other political experience also needs to be carefully targeted. Being active in a party faction, such as Labour’s Momentum, was an asset while Jeremy Corbyn was Labour Party leader. Now it is likely to be a significant handicap. Similarly, spending lots of hours at local party meetings is likely to be a waste of time unless one plans to stand as a councillor in that area. The time might be better spent in a think tank or policy group affiliated with the party.

MPs typically have 15-25 years work experience before they become an MP, though they may stand for Parliament unsuccessfully a number of times before winning. Examples of previous jobs held by MPs include:

  • Local councillor (and council leader)
  • Political adviser or MP staffer
  • Lawyer (either solicitor or barrister, generally politically active)
  • Member of a devolved assembly or European Parliament
  • Public affairs - either for a private sector agency (more common among Conservative advisers) or for an NGO or cause area
  • Think tank work - generally a more politically aligned think tank, in a senior or comms-focused capacity
  • Journalism - typically as a lobby journalist or senior reporter with a strong politics focus
  • Business and finance (more common for Conservative MPs) 
  • Trade union worker (for the Labour Party)
  • Public services (e.g. teaching, being a medical doctor; less common) 
  • Academia (less common)

For most, being an MP - especially if they become a minister or shadow minister - will be the peak of their career, at least in terms of power and influence. Many will retire after they stop being MPs; those who are more successful might write books or occasionally give lectures and media interviews. However if they wish to, former MPs, unless they have gained a negative reputation, are unlikely to find it difficult to go on to do other senior roles in the political sphere.

Other relevant information

Being an MP is extremely demanding. It is not uncommon to hear reports of stress arising from both the workload, the nature of political campaigning, splitting one’s time between London and the constituency, and the immense public scrutiny. The more senior the MP, the more demanding and stressful the job is likely to be. Research shows poor levels of mental health among MPs. 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 adds particular pressure to MPs, who may lose their jobs. The cost to the individual of running for office is estimated at anywhere between £15-40,000, depending on how marginal the seat is and whether there are alternative sources of funding (note that these calculations often take into account lost income from time spent campaigning). This means it favours those with existing financial means, or enough spare time to run campaigns. While MPs are by no means badly paid, those who stand and lose are not compensated, so the average candidate is likely to take a substantial financial hit.

MPs split their time between London and the constituency, typically working Monday-Thursday in Parliament and Friday-Sunday in the constituency, except for during recess, when they are only in the constituency. Recess roughly tracks the school holidays. This can have a disruptive impact on family life, relationships and mental health, though Parliament has tried to provide more support for parents in the form of an on-site nursery and maternity leave.

Are you interested in becoming an MP?

Compared to the civil service and academic policy work, there are very few EAs working in party politics. I only know of a handful who have worked in Parliament, and 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 elected politics, and would recommend working in Parliament and/or getting involved with a local political party as the best first-step. I would be very happy to speak to anyone who is considering this as a career route!

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