Updated 4 March 2015
Updated: 28 June 2010
Added: 26 August 2009
Politics, policy, PR, public affairs or events – how do you start off in Westminster?
From rumours and news articles, one would assume that to get a job in Westminster (i.e. think tank, trade body, consultancy or for an MP) requires, at a minimum, a public school upbringing, an Oxbridge degree in PPP (or Durham, if you must) and a parent in a ministerial post (or shadow post).
I’m proud to say that, without any of those requirements, I infiltrated the Westminster circle (or bubble, depending on if you’re a ‘half-full’ or half-empty’ person).
In just four years out of Uni, I now oversee public affairs (that is, government and parliamentary relations) for one of the UK’s leading trade bodies. I also dabble in the occasional corporate communications (annual reporting), campaign coordination, events and media relations.
I believe, therefore, it’s possible for anyone to secure employment in Westminster – it just requires some persistence and intuition. I hope the following advice helps you, too, to infiltrate Westminster.
Education and background
For an entry level position into a Westminster job, you don’t need to have a degree in politics. Yes, it will help. It will help you get into the interview pile, but it’s not all or nothing. Degrees in any background are okay, but you need to express interest, keenness and appetite in the world of politics.
When I’m looking to hire someone, I rate covering letters/CVs in four main areas: (1) politics; (2) policy; (3) press; and (4) the specific industry knowledge. Points are awarded if you demonstrate anything from interest to professional experience in any of those four areas. This type of test stresses the importance of covering letters. You don’t have to have the perfect CV, but a well written, articulate letter which demonstrates your aptitude and interest can go a long way.
The dreaded internship
The recession has caused job opportunities to diminish drastically, but even before the recession, Westminster already had a lopsided job market, with demand greatly outstripping supply.
My biggest hurdle when I began, was what I call the ‘chicken and the egg’ paradox. Employers look for entry-level candidates with experience, but the candidates find it difficult to get the experience without the job!
Here is where the concepts of work experience and internships arose. Work experience or internships are roughly the same thing, although it depends on the specific employer as to how they define and implement each.
Internships allow candidates the opportunity to gain invaluable professional experience. They should be viewed as a training opportunity by both the employer and the intern.
In practice, this means that the employer must be prepared to dedicate time and resources into helping, teaching and training interns. Interns, on the other hand, must be prepared to treat their tenure with professionalism and dedication, i.e. provide value to the employer. If neither party can fulfill these requirements, it becomes a waste of time.
The employer must manage and treat the tenure of the internship as a training exercise first and foremost. The intern’s role should not become the stopper to plug the employer’s staffing resource gap. Yes, the intern is there to get involved and provide support, but that must be secondary to the requirement of the employer to provide value to the intern through training and experience.
Hunting for a good internship
The most valuable resource for Westminster internships is w4mp.org. Most think tanks, political parties, MPs, trade bodies and consultancies use w4mp.org to advertise internships.
Another good way to identify internships is to visit organisations’ individual websites, and don’t be put off if they don’t advertise. A short and polite email enquiry to the relevant person in charge of HR may reveal an internship opportunity which wasn’t otherwise advertised.
Funding my way through my internship
My first step into Westminster was through an internship with a well-known think tank. The internship was for 12 weeks unpaid, not even travel expenses or lunch, but I weighed up my options and considered the internship to be the only way out of the ‘chicken and the egg’ paradox of gaining work experience.
During my internship, I still had to pay for my own travel, rent and food, so I did what any young 20-something would do in London to make a quick couple quid – I got a bar job. I worked three nights during the week and one at the weekend. That worked out to about 25-35 hours per week, on top of the normal 40 hours at the internship. It wasn’t ideal, but definitely manageable for a couple of months.
It took a lot out of me and required some hardened dedication, but it was worth it. After only four weeks into my internship, the think tank had a job opening which, after interviewing four candidates, including me, I had a job.
Many internships are available part time, especially if you explain to your potential employer that you will be self-funded throughout it.
Final piece of advice
In a normal job market, the process of finding gainful employment can take, on average, six months. In the current depressed market, it may take much longer. An internship will help you to stay active, ahead of the curve and gain important experience and skills to shorten that period of unemployment. Good luck.
KM August 2009