Moving on – Life after working for an MP

Last revised: 31 May 2011
Added: 29 July 2008

So…..it’s a quiet Friday at Westminster or a rare lull midweek in a constituency office or, better still, the middle of Recess; you have time on your hands. Maybe the conference season has left you thinking it’s time to dream a little. No?

Well, OK, there’s still a mountain of stuff left over to sort out now the boss has gone on his/her hols (or – see above – back to the constituency or is busy at Westminster or away at conference) – but we think this is a period for a bit of self-indulgent reflection and W4MP is, as ever, here to help.  The guide below was written, and now revised, by two former staff of MPs who have moved on and we think it’s full of excellent advice.

So, even if you are not thinking of moving on just yet, sit back, put your feet on the desk and think about what you might want to do next. As the guide emphasises below, it never to early to plan your next move.

W4MP Ed.

 

The first thing to realise about leaving your MP’s office is that there are lots of people who have parliamentary or constituency experience who will be applying for the same jobs as you. It may not be as easy as you think to get the next job up in the wider world of politics. It is not uncommon for it to take up to a year of applying for jobs and interviewing to get something you are happy with. So the first tip is to start thinking about what you want to do next long in advance of when you think you might want to leave.

As a researcher or caseworker you will probably have worked on numerous policy areas. However, once you leave, you may find yourself specialising in one or two policy areas, so you should start thinking early on about what those areas will be.

Using both of these points as a foundation, this guide aims to do two things – first, to provide tips on how to maximise your time working for the MP and, second, to provide some ideas of what former staffers have gone on to do next.

  • Maximising your time
  • Building blocks
  • The job hunt
    – Charity and non-profit sector
    – Corporate government affairs
    – Government
    – Local Government
    – Media
    – Political Consultancies and Think Tanks
    – Alternatives (Agencies, Linked In, Retraining, Working for……another MP)
  • And finally…

 

Maximising your time

Some of you will have been savvy enough to have worked out what areas of policy interest you the most prior to even applying to work for an MP and to have targeted MPs based on those policy areas. However, the vast majority of you will probably have been delighted to have simply fought off the stiff competition to get the Holy Grail that is working for an MP of your political persuasion, irrespective of the types of issues that particular MP works on.

The issues your MP works on and, by default, the issues you will end up specialising in, will, to some degree, dictate what comes next. For example, if your MP works on energy issues, the natural progression might be to work as a government affairs officer for an oil company – but is this what you want to do?

 

Building blocks

If you are in the fortunate position that you are already working on the policy areas you think you might want to work on after leaving the MP, then you should use that opportunity to build on what you have done so far. For example, if your MP Chairs an All-Party Group on a subject you’re interested in, why not offer to write a monthly newsletter? It will look great on a job application if you can say you’ve been keeping MPs and Lords up-to-date on key policy developments. Try to attend as many events organised by relevant businesses and charities as possible to build on your network of contacts in that area.

If your MP does not work on the areas you’ve decided you’re most interested in, you have a couple of options open to you. First, try approaching the MP to ask if he/she would consider taking up the issues you’re interested in. You might find the MP is more amenable if you have thought it out in advance so you can provide an angle or link to the constituency or to work he/she already does. Alternatively, look at the list of All-Party Groups to see if there’s an All-Party Group on that subject. If there is, contact them to see if you can get involved in some capacity, especially on a voluntary basis. The list can be found at the following link:

A final tip in terms of maximising your time is to keep a record of the things you do as you go along. It is easy to assume you will remember everything you’ve done whilst working for an MP, but when it comes to writing an application, key achievements might have slipped your mind. It may seem laborious but it will save time when it comes to responding to questions on applications such as ‘tell us about a time when you faced a challenging situation at work and how you approached it to achieve a satisfactory outcome’.

 

The job hunt

By now you should have established the areas you are most interested in, built on those areas during your day-to-day work for the MP, and kept a record of the key things you’ve been involved in. The next task is to start targeting the types of organisation you want to work for. Broadly speaking, the types of jobs staffers go on to are as follows:

Charity and non-profit sector:

The majority of larger charities have policy and public affairs departments who lobby MPs and Government about their particular charity’s issues and try to promote their charity in the media. You probably won’t earn as much as you would in the corporate government affairs world, but the work will be rewarding. Remember that big charities are increasingly run like businesses with deadlines and people to answer to if budgets are overspent. As a researcher/caseworker you will almost certainly have had copious amounts of communication from charities and if you are interested in this type of work, start befriending their current staff and be as helpful to them as possible – it may be beneficial to you in the long run if a job comes up at the charity!

Corporate government affairs:

These jobs can be a little harder to find, as bigger corporations often take people from their graduate recruitment intake and train them in government affairs. Typically, this type of work involves long hours but good levels of pay. Your job may combine government affairs with ‘corporate communications’ which basically amounts to promoting the company in the press and the communities within which they operate.

If you want to make the most of your networking skills, you could join PubAffairs, an industry network that has a regularly updated jobs and news website, and frequent get-togethers in London, often near Westminster. Its blog is a good way of keeping up with the latest trends in the industry, to give you that edge when it comes to interviews. It also has a Facebook group you can join for invitations to drinks networking events (often with free drinks!)

Government:

As you will probably know, there are numerous positions in Government, from the civil service fast stream to speech writers for Ministers, or country specialists in the FCO. If you manage to get to interview you may well have to deal with the interviewer asking you how you’ll manage to transition from working in a highly party political environment to a technically unpoliticised environment. Think this through in advance but one answer is to explain that you haven’t always agreed with your MP’s stance on matters but it has not posed a problem as you leave your own politics at home and would do exactly the same as a civil servant.

It is worth remembering that the recruitment process is slow and even once you are offered a job, the level of security clearance required of civil servants is far higher than parliamentary security clearance so can take months to come through. Things seem to move a little quicker with the Special Adviser jobs due to the urgency with which such staff are required.

For more information about the civil service fast stream, visit this website:

A final note on Government jobs is that persistence really is the key to success. You would be a very lucky person indeed to get through into the fast stream first time round, or even to get the first Special Adviser job you applied for. It’s not unusual for a persistent former researcher to get into the fast stream on her/his 3rd – or later – attempt!

Local Government:

Caseworkers, in particular, will have built up a network of contacts within the constituency and wider area and, especially, with many officers at the local council.  The nature of some casework is very similar to that of council officers and so caseworkers will find that many council jobs are ones with comparable skills.

There is a wide range of posts in local government to suit someone who has worked for a Member of Parliament.  For example, in some councils the Councillors will have a group secretary whose tasks may include some mixture of the following: maintaining their diaries, keeping them informed of council meetings, dealing with their correspondence as well as press work, research, stats, group cohesion, liaising and negotiating with chief officers…and many other things. There may be a department which deals with incoming casework which has not been directed to a particular Councillor or department.  Most councils will also have a public relations department, dealing with all aspects of PR, including press releases, public meetings, etc.

Many councils now have a system of ‘area working’, where each ward, or group of wards will have an area co-ordinator who will also deal with casework issues, ensuring that they are directed to the correct people to deal with them.  Area co-ordinators also organise public meetings and fora, and are the first point of contact for many members of the public.

Information or communication officers ensure that important information is distributed to those who need to receive it, whether within the council or externally.  They will also carry out research in order to keep the council up to date with the latest information.  There are numerous openings for general secretaries and administration staff.

One thing of which you should be aware, is that many local government posts are ‘politically-restricted’.  This means that if you are a member of a political party, you can’t do anything to generate support for it such as canvassing, standing for election etc. How strict councils are varies, but in some places you can’t deliver or put a poster up at your home either. The White Paper is proposing to ease up on political restrictions, though.  The legislation on political restrictions in local government (the 1989 Local Government Act) sets out very specific things that you can’t do, including standing for office, canvassing, putting your name to controversial views etc. It does not relate to party membership and it is difficult to envisage any circumstances where political activity or employment could be held against you; indeed, that would probably be illegal.

Your local council will advertise vacancies on their website, but there are other useful websites too:

Media:

Broadly speaking there are two key areas – being a journalist or being a researcher for a news programme. Getting jobs on national newspapers is immensely competitive even as a trained journalist. However, if you start by applying for short internships on the nationals, you may have more success than simply trying to get straight in as a reporter. Programmes such as The Today Programme or Newsnight employ researchers so it is worth keeping an eye the BBC’s jobs site to see what comes up.

Political Consultancies and Think Tanks:

Political consultancies tend to lobby politicians on behalf of corporations but also offer non-political corporate communications for companies. Therefore, your role will be similar to that of a government affairs person for a corporation, but instead of having one client (i.e. the company you work for), you will have numerous different corporate clients. You may also carry out research/statistical analysis/polls on behalf of the companies you represent.

Think Tanks tend to recruit people with research and statistical analysis experience given how research intensive the jobs are. If you want to enhance your chances of getting through to the interview stage, try to incorporate some statistical analysis into your job – for example, if your MP sends questionnaires out to constituents, offer to analyse the results.

A selection of political consultancies:

A selection of think tanks:

Alternatives:

Agencies

It is worth registering your details with a recruitment agency up to a year in advance of when you plan on leaving. They will contact you with appropriate jobs that you may not find advertised elsewhere. You can try the usual recruitment agencies, but the better ones are as follows:

You can also post your CV on job sites to ensure that recruitment consultants can find you. While agencies keep their own databases of job hunters, they’ll often also search the some of the bigger public sites, such as:

When looking for the right candidate for a particular client’s vacancy, a recruitment consultant will have hundreds of CVs to wade through to find the right person. To make this task quicker and easier, they often use a technique called a Boolean Search String, which allows them to enter a few relevant keywords and call up the CVs which match their requirements. Keywords can often be IT related, if this is important to the client, such as ‘Excel’ or Powerpoint’, so be sure to include your IT skills on your CV. Other keywords in political jobs might be ‘parliamentary procedure’, ‘speechwriting’ or ‘political judgment’.

Linked In  

It’s also worth registering with Linked In (www.linkedin.com), an online networking facility which can be very useful when it comes to job hunting. Linked In is the professional equivalent of Facebook, allowing you to make contact with past colleagues and university friends. Much like Facebook, each user creates an online profile, but the focus on LinkedIn is on building up professional, rather than social, contacts. It’s especially good for staying in touch with former colleagues who may not have made it onto your Facebook Friends, but who could be useful in offering advice and information in the future.

Retraining

As a final suggestion, if none of the above types of work appeal, you could think about retraining whilst you continue working for the MP. For example, law firms are keen on people with parliamentary experience. If you are a non-law graduate you will need to study the Graduate Diploma in Law and if you already have a law degree, you simply need to study the Legal Practice Course/Bar Vocational Course (depending on whether you want to be a solicitor or barrister respectively). The courses can be studied part time and you’d be surprised how many fellow researchers you will find at the law schools.

There are also plenty of researchers studying for Masters degrees part time. Don’t be afraid to ask your MP if they’d consider allowing you to reduce your hours so that you can study. You might be pleasantly surprised by their response – for example, MPs often feel they don’t need their researcher in on Fridays so you could use that day to study.

Working for….another MP

One option you might not have considered, once you’ve decided to move on, might be working for another MP. People do indeed do it! Researchers’ job descriptions tend to vary so widely, it can often be a good move. If you’ve been working for a backbencher you might relish the opportunity to get your teeth stuck into a portfolio, especially if you’ve not managed to break out of the diary assistant rut. Or, of course, you might just fancy a similar job for a different MP with a better wage.

With an election impending, this can be an excellent option for Researchers who might find their bosses not returned. If your boss isn’t standing this time, you’ve probably already started thinking about it but if you get a nasty shock on polling night, sniffing around new MPs could also be an option. You’ve one huge selling point for fresh (and vulnerable) MPs:  you know what you’re doing. You know why that bell is ringing loudly and often, where the Library is, what a reasoned amendment is and when not to lunch in The Terrace. If you can present yourself as indispensible to the new intake, you might be able to engineer a decent pay rise when, after the election, the doors opento a sea of worthy, newly elected representatives; you are just the person to take one of this bunch of bewildered, blinking Bambis and lead them confidently though the Westminster maze.

 

And finally…

The guardian’s website has a great job section: http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/  and don’t forget to keep an eye on www.w4mpjobs.org/ – it has one of the best political job sections around! [So they say. Ed.] There’s also a large resource of more job search websites here on W4MP.

DR/October 2010
CD/March 2010
ED/July 2008

 

We hope you found this guide useful.  If you have any further information or ideas which you think will be useful to staff thinking about moving on, do let us know; click on the Feedback Form below.  If you find any mistakes in here let us know, too.