Parliamentary Researchers: The unsung heroes of Westminster?

By Robert Dale

‘Much is written about the work of MPs, but comparatively less is written about their staff’ says John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, in the forward to my book How to be a Parliamentary Researcher.

It is strange that – about 50 years after Members of Parliament (MPs) voted for a motion that granted them ‘an allowance in respect of expenses incurred for their parliamentary duties on secretarial assistance within a maximum of £500’ a year – so little has been written about these individuals who play such a central and core role to the running of Parliament. I don’t believe that modern MPs can do the job most members of the public expect them to do without the support of a small team of hard-working, dedicated and bright individuals.

There are, of course, some exceptions to my analysis. Philip Hollobone, who claims on his election material to be ‘Britain’s cheapest MP’ has never employed a member of staff since he was elected in 2005. Similarly, some MPs, due perhaps to age, constituency characteristics or simply a lack of effort have refused to engage with websites, email or social media.

For parliamentary researchers, of which the vast majority of MPs will have one full-time and possible another part-time, they are required to support and guide their boss through these new pressures, whilst also helping them with the more traditional aspects of the role: speaking in the House of Commons, tabling questions, establishing campaigns, appearing in the media and attending many, many meetings.

It is their responsibility to do much of the legwork so that their boss can focus on his or her main job; performing. For example, when a backbench MPs successfully secures themselves the opportunity to introduce a 10-Minute Rule Bill, or lead a Westminster Hall debate, it will be the task of their parliamentary researcher to invite relevant experts and organisations to brief the MP (in person or by written evidence), pull together all necessary key information, draft the first version of the speech, write a press release as well as content for social media. In the most extreme example I was involved in, my boss and I were responsible for leading the opposition response to a government bill. It was case of us two versus a government department, who not only controlled the content, but also the timing. My job was to work with a network of relevant people affected by the bill to identify flaws in the proposals, draft amendments, raise the profile of our objections in the national and trade media as well as prepare speaking notes for my boss and other members of the bill committee team.

Due to the workload and intensity of modern Westminster politics, being a parliamentary researcher can be a bruising role. I was fortunate to work for a great boss, Andy Sawford, who treated all of his staff with huge amounts of respect and who was a great ambassador and campaigner for his constituency. What made the job additionally interesting was that I walked in Parliament alongside my MP on his first day in the role (at a by-election in November 2012); we were both rookies to our new jobs and had to learn quickly as we sought to hit the ground running.

This bred a great sense of teamwork, togetherness and endeavour across Parliament and the constituency office. MPs need this emotional and personal support, to know that they have people around them that have their backs, can help pull them through the tough patches and the numerous long, busy days. Despite thousands of people working inside the parliamentary estate, it can feel a very lonely place, particularly for MPs. MPs should be open to learning from their parliamentary researchers as part of this shared endeavour. Many parliamentary researchers will have worked hard for many years studying, debating and practising politics themselves.

Nowhere will MPs rely on their parliamentary researchers more over this Parliament than in digital communications and the additional engagement (or workload) with constituents this creates. Millions of people now participate in politics through sites such as 38 Degrees, Change.org and the joint Parliament-government e-petitions site. Similarly, hundreds of charities and pressure groups are mobilising their members and supporters to lobby MPs to support their campaign, sign EDMs, ask a Parliamentary Question in the Commons chamber, attend an event such as a mass lobby of Parliament, or write to a minister on their behalf. This illustrates the new expectations the public have of their MPs. No longer do they vote them off to Westminster for five years and leave them to it. Now, constituents want to be able to share their views and influence their MP 24/7. Social media has intensified this further, with the ability to transform an MP from a distant figure in the Commons to a person who constituents can know, follow and feel engaged with. Whether MPs like all of this or not, it’s happening. The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy aims to have a ‘fully interactive and digital’ Parliament by 2020 and its recommendations for achieving this are fundamentally about public participation, storytelling and direct engagement between politician and electorate.

For today’s busy MPs, though, it is difficult and time-consuming to keep track of latest developments in digital communication. They are also too busy to write individual responses to each piece of communication they receive (which are thousands each month), or to monitor every comment their receive on Twitter or Facebook. These responsibilities are increasingly becoming tasks that take up most of a parliamentary researcher’s time. They are required to draft letters on a range of policy issues – from tax credits to turtles in the Cayman Islands – and respond to social media messages. In this way, what MPs value more in their staff is not an understanding how Parliament works, but how to interact and communicate well with constituents.

I never studied politics at any time during my education. I have a degree in journalism and had been working for a think tank prior to entering Parliament. This is probably why I think digital and communications is so important. But at a time when MPs are required to speak more directly to their constituents, to campaign more, respond quicker, to grow their personal profile and build the number of activists willing to knock on doors for them, having a good digital presence is fundamental and key.

I believe it’s a shame so little is written or spoken about parliamentary researchers, or the ‘unsung heroes of the Westminster Village’ as John Bercow calls them. For most people who do it, it is a great job that sets them up for a long and successful career in politics, either in Parliament, public affairs, communications or policy work. I would be very happy to visit your campus and speak to your students about how they can get into Parliament, and once there, succeed in the role.

Robert Dale is a now a lobbyist at public affairs agency Connect Communications. He is on Twitter at @robandale His recent book, How to be a Parliamentary Researcher, is available from Biteback Publishing, here.

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