12 months at Westminster – the obstacle course

Revised: 7 January 2010
Added: 2 January 2010

Welcome to 2010 at Westminster.  Below is a new guide for you from W4MP.  Those of you based in the constituency will be thinking: yeah, yeah, it’s always about that pampered lot living it up in Portcullis House – away from the real world. 

We challenged constituency-based staff to write their own version and you can see it here.

Thanks to our two writers for these guides.  If you have any comments please let us have them, using the Feedback form at the bottom of this page.  W4MP Ed.

 

So 2009 is over. You survived – congratulations! If you were in parliament for the whole year you’re probably feeling like a bit of a veteran now. However, you still clicked on this guide, proving Parliament’s biggest secret; that no one really knows what they’re doing, no matter how long they’ve been here…

Odds are, however, that you’ve not been here a whole year. Turnover of researchers is always very high, and until someone realises that £16,000 is not a competitive London wage, that’s likely to remain the case.

So here are a few key obstacles that are likely to be lying in wait in the next 12 months…

  • JanuarySurviving the most depressing month of the year
  • February – Mini recess
  • March – Spring Conference
  • April – New financial year
  • May – General Election (probably…)
  • June – The School visit
  • July – Winding up for summer
  • August – Summer recess
  • September – Conference
  • October – Christmas Cards
  • November – The Queens’ Speech
  • December – Christmas

JanuarySurviving the most depressing month of the year

Let’s be honest, January is rubbish. It rains all the time, it’s freezing cold, you’re still fat and poor from Christmas, and everything’s just a bit miserable.

Watch out in particular for January 24th, allegedly the most depressing day of the year according to Cardiff University’s ‘January Blues Day Formula’: 1/8W+(D-d) 3/8xTQ MxNA. (In case you’re wondering what this actually means, you can find a slightly dubious explanation here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4187183.stm)

Anyway, before the misery sets in totally, use January to set some work-related New Years Resolutions, and try to make them resolutions to improve your sanity rather than productivity. Something along the lines of ‘leave work on time at least twice a week’, ‘never take work home at weekends’ or ‘accept that no one else really knows what they’re doing either, and stop feeling so bad about it…’ might be helpful.

And look on the bright side, the 24th Jan this year falls on a Sunday. So you can legitimately spend the entire day under you duvet with a jar of nutella and a spoon, waiting until it’s safe to come out on the 25th.

February – Mini recess

February has the potential to be even more unremarkable than January, but for Parliament, that’s a good thing. Not only is February a gloriously boring month, but it’s broken up by half term! Just like being back at school.

Capitalise on the dullness, wallow in the beautiful lack of drama, and see if you can make the office so boring that your MP actually goes back to the constituency for a week in recess. That way you can wear jeans and take long lunches. Simple pleasures.

March – Spring Conference

If you are lucky enough to work for a party that doesn’t ‘do’ Spring conference, then read on. There’s nothing for you here. Just be smug that your March will be significantly less stressful than ours.

However, Spring Conference doesn’t have to be a nightmare. In fact, it can be quite fun. It’s only three days long; what’s the worst that can happen?! (Queue scene from Dr Pepper advert, featuring a hapless MP with their pants down on the Daily Politics show…)

Top tips:

  • Book your accommodation early (if you’re reading this in March and you haven’t done this yet, it’s too late. You are permitted to panic. Your best bet at this stage is to buy a sleeping bag and bribe another researcher with beer to let you sleep on their floor…)
  • Don’t take it all too seriously. Chances are your MP has done this many times before, knows exactly what they’re doing, and doesn’t need you following them around for three days asking them if they remembered to put any pants on today.

April – New financial year

The start of April means two things.

  1. April Fools day
  2. Start of the new financial year.

As a general rule, if you’re hoping to negotiate a pay rise for the new financial year, think very carefully about what April fools tricks you play on your boss… (the ‘tidal wave’ prank on this page http://aprilfoolzone.com would be particularly unwise…)

But seriously, having a pay review is a good idea. It will depend how long you’ve been here for, and whether you’ve had a pay review yet, but it’s always something worth bearing in mind. The times when you can sensibly suggest a pay review are the end of any initial period of probation (likely to be 6 months), the end of your first year, or the start of the new financial year. But generally not all three!

If you’re hoping to ask for a pay rise at this time of year, make it really clear to your boss that that’s what you’re doing so they don’t feel ambushed. It’d be a good idea to make a list of your responsibilities and the hours that you work, especially if have increased since starting your job. Have a (reasonable) figure in mind, and aim a little higher. That way if they negotiate you down you’re still likely to be doing ok, and if they say yes, then you’re in the money!

May – General Election (probably…)

The two words that strike fear in any researcher’s heart. General. Election.

Aaaaaarrrrrgggghhh!

Before you run screaming for the hills, now is another good moment to bear in mind the golden rule of Parliament: no one else knows what they’re doing either.

Firstly, as a member of parliamentary staff you’re not allowed to be paid to campaign for the election. You will need to talk to your MP about how this will work – in most cases staff take leave over the election period, but it’s worth finding out as soon as possible how this will work.

If you are going to your constituency to campaign:

  • Make sure you know where you’re staying. Local party members can be interesting characters, and spending a month living in the house of anyone you don’t know will be testing. Take some good books, and possibly some tranquilizers.
  • Wear hideous but practical clothes. For one month only, get into character as a local campaigns enthusiast. Bring comfy trainers, an anorak, and maybe even a bumbag. (The bumbag will not help with the campaign, I just think they’ve been seriously overlooked since the 80s, and it’s time they came back.)
  • Grin and bear it. It’s not going to be as much fun as a month in London with your friends, but it can be exciting, and rewarding, and at the end of the day if you want your job back after the election you’re just going to have to pin that rosette on, fix on a permanent smile, and knock on some doors.

June – The School visit

This is not confined to June, but for some reason all of the school visits do tend to choose this month to descend.

  • Book tours as early as is humanly possible. Do not leave it to the last minute! Showing around a group of school kids and their teachers by yourself is not going to be fun. Make sure you get them on an official tour.
  • If you can find half an hour for your MP to do a Q&A or a quick talk for the group afterwards they generally really appreciate it. Book a committee room for about an hour after the tours start, and try to coordinate your MP being there on time. Speaking from experience here, filling in for your MP in a Q&A for 80 teenagers is not enjoyable. Avoid wherever possible.
  • If your MP isn’t free, try talking to the education unit. They can sometimes send someone to do a talk about how Parliament works, which is bound to please the teachers and win you some brownie points.

July – Winding up for summer

Summer recess is nearly here, but there are a million and one things to do before your MP disappears for a couple of months. Try to keep a few afternoons clear to get signatures on letters and run through all of those things that you’ve been meaning to talk to your boss about for a couple of weeks now.

Otherwise at 3pm on the last Thursday afternoon as your MP rushes for the 3.30pm train, you will find yourself following them through Westminster station panting something about booking meeting rooms and getting a pass for that new intern. And no, it won’t look like a scene from the West Wing.

August – Summer recess

Wahey! It’s summer recess. Brilliant. Make yourself a to-do list, and ensure that some of these things are on it:

  1. Filing (you know it’s not going to get done at any other time of year).
  2. Pimms on the Terrace.
  3. Take a look in that drawer of ‘things I don’t know what to do with so I’m pretending they don’t exist’ and do something with them. They do exist, and it’ll be less painful now than later.
  4. Picnic in St James Park.
  5. General office tidy (most MPs are more grateful for a superficially tidy office than for any amount of casework or the most jaw-droppingly fantastic speech. If you really want to suck-up, buy some kind of plant).

September – Conference

This is a big obstacle. If you can survive conference, you can manage just about anything this job throws at you. Key things to remember:

  • Get in a hotel/flat as close as possible to the conference centre. You will NOT appreciate a bracing 30 minute seaside walk on your way to a breakfast fringe meeting at 7am. More importantly, nor will your boss.
  • Carry lots of paper. Lots and lots of paper. You never know when you’re going to be able to access a computer, so make sure you have hard copies of absolutely everything, and save it all on a USB stick stored somewhere separately.
  • Do not forget your phone charger! (or your phone for that matter. And try not to drop your mobile down the loo/in the sea/under a bus.)
  • Make sure you flag up which fringe events have free food/drinks and make them a priority. Contrary to popular belief, MP’s expenses do not extend to staff. This is likely to be the most freebies you will have access to for the rest of 2010, make the most of it.

October – Christmas Cards

This sounds ridiculous, but it really will take that long. Start work on the Christmas cards as soon as possible. You will find your MA in International Relations and work experience at the UN invaluable for this task.

  • Make sure you remove anyone that’s died in the last year from the list. Sending a card to someone recently deceased is a sure-fire way to ruin the Christmas spirit for all concerned.
  • Buy lots of spare cards. No matter how many times your MP says they won’t need any, they’re wrong.
  • Aim for the least-bad Christmas card you can find, ideally avoiding anything with a picture of your MP’s children on, or the one with a picture of Big Ben that absolutely everyone else will choose.
  • Be prepared to get stomach ulcers from the sheer amount of envelope licking.

And suddenly, it’s December 15th and you’re finally shoving handfuls of Christmas cards into the internal mail. Time flies when you’re having fun.

November – The Queens’ Speech

The Queens’ speech is generally not huge news, and you can probably work out before hand what’s likely to be announced. Be prepared to write some last minute press-releases, but otherwise you can generally sit back and enjoy the circus.

Prorogation is just a fancy word for a mini-recess. Some MPs will disappear back to their constituencies for a week, but either way the House won’t be sitting, so things get a bit easier.

On the day of the speech, it is tradition for researchers to stand outside in the cold and rain and watch the Queen arrive. Not because we want to, but just because we can. In addition to watching the procession (which is pretty impressive, whether you’re a fan of the Queen or not), it can be just as much fun to play ‘spot the sniper’. Look out for the shadowy figures on the roofs of parliament and the buildings down Whitehall and pretend you’re in Spooks.

December – Christmas

Tis the season to be jolly, tra la la la la la la la la!

Christmas is always very, very busy; every organisation under the sun seems to want your MP to speak at their Christmas reception, there’s the Christmas cards to finish off, and then all of the other work that you can’t really leave over the two week break.

But try not to take it all too seriously. Get to some Christmassy receptions for free mulled wine and mine pies, buy lots of Portcullis branded tat from the gift shop for elderly relatives, attend as many Christmas parties as possible, and ensure that by the time you get home for Christmas you’re so tired that watching you’ve been framed actually doesn’t sound too terrible any more.

And most importantly, give yourself a pat on the back. You survived a whole year in Parliament! You are now officially a veteran. If you do take away anything from these ramblings, make it this: no one else really knows what they’re doing either, and apparently, that’s ok.

HU Jan 2010

 

Now read the Constituency version: 
Twelve Months in a Constituency Office – In a Cupboard with Snow-Shoes, Street-Lights and Election Frenzy

 

If you want to comment on this guide, or any of our other guides, please click on the FEEDBACK link below.