It was a Monday morning; I was one amongst thousands strolling by the Palace of Westminster. But there was a key difference between myself and everyone else, and as I stared up at the honey-coloured limestone, I was ecstatic. For the next five days I’d be doing something more than simply standing outside, taking photos and gawping into the sunlight. I would be working inside these historic, world-famous buildings, and all I had to do was send an email to my local MP.
Although it was a rather long email, taking me hours to complete - including a carefully crafted and convincing cover letter expressing my passion for politics and a CV which I’d worked hard to fill up. By the end of it, after meeting the likes of Boris Johnson and Nick Clegg, after attending numerous debates and select committees, after writing speeches and articles for the MP whose office I was working in; the feelings of being star struck yet out of place didn’t go away.
Maybe I should have expected that, as a young adult moving from the suburbs of a small town into the centre of one of the world’s biggest cities. Maybe the nerves and excitement were heightened every time I passed by security guards and through metal detectors and shiny revolving doors. Maybe it was the throwing on of a suit for the first time in a long while and being surrounded by people who sounded a lot more posh and intelligent than me. Still, when I was in the office, acting as a parliamentary assistant, doing local media monitoring, researching and writing to constituents I was completely in my element.
It was a challenging and stimulating experience. The fact that it was easy for me to secure is a huge reason why I’d recommend it. And although there are no public funds available for interns, it was cheaper to stay in a youth hostel for the week, which was just a short walk from Parliament, and I relied on student rail fares to get to and from London. The work experience opportunity is open to pretty much anyone.
The benefits are also there for those who are intellectually curious or passionate about politics. There’s no better way to learn more about the running of government, clear up any misconceptions, and test your assumptions. Seeing party briefings, manifestos, debates and written statements gives you a huge amount of insight into the workings of Westminster.
I knew that my local MP - Tobias Ellwood - was a Conservative, but I wanted to do some research on his ideology and political viewpoints before working for him. I found that he was neo-liberal, right-wing, anti-immigration. Everything I am not. On a ‘TheyWorkForYou’ questionnaire, several statements had been put to Tobias. In response to “a heterosexual couple provide the best environment in which to raise a family” he agreed. He also agreed that “politicians in Britain are honest.” I thoroughly disagreed. I was frothing at the mouth.
I walked into his office thinking about how fiery our debates would be, where I could challenge his opinions, what data I could use to tear him apart. I began the experience thinking it would reinforce my opinion that Westminster is dominated by right-wing politics, with every Conservative MP strung together in a web of deceit and self-interest, interested only in amassing power and profits at the expense of everyone else.
Instead, as the week went on, I realised my perception of the Conservative Party was changing dramatically.
Tobias spoke for himself and his colleagues. He was a nice man, listening patiently to my opinions (which I softened for the sake of being friendly) and questioning me calmly. He poked holes in my logic, disagreed with me eloquently, and got to the core of each issue in a few concise sentences. He used facts I’d never heard of, that the media hadn’t picked up on, that the Tories didn’t use in their propaganda. However, I didn’t see much of him for rest of the week. MPs have a pretty hectic timetable, as it turns out. So I got to work. And my preconceptions continued to unravel.
Reading about potential policies made me see that the Conservative Party isn’t as lifeless, malevolent and out of touch as some media outlets paint it out to be. The Affordable Housing Bill, for instance, is attempting to reverse the damage done by the Bedroom Tax and stop the poorest and most disabled being affected. The Recall Bill is a response to the 2009 MP’s expenses scandal and is going to allow constituents to recall their MP for unacceptable behaviour. The Bills aren’t perfect, but thankfully all of their flaws are being picked up in debates.
For every policy being carved up and torn apart by journalists, there are dozens more currently on their way through Parliament. They help a little here, clear up some mess over there, and provide some benefits that we’ll see in a few years. My experience hammered home the fact that with politics, only bad news is news. Good news isn’t.
I still had a million questions to ask by the end of it, but by speaking and listening with Tobias, and reading and writing with the many secretive documents thrown in front of me, certain things were cleared up. I saw a certain futility in being a socialist.
However, I wasn’t ’brainwashed’ into a Tory way of thinking. The damage they’ve done over the last few years means I won’t be voting Conservative in 2015. The 10% fall in real wages, the opposition to marriage equality, the rise in zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment, pushing away Scotland, and most importantly, the ravaging of the welfare state and the punishment of the poorest for a crisis that was caused by the richest. Nothing can excuse all of that.
But, fortunately, Tobias didn’t try to excuse this. He sounded almost regretful about some of his party’s actions. He agreed that living standards had declined for the majority. And without trying to drill any ideas into me, he invited me to explore certain areas and research a few policies (which, again, aren’t widely known by the general public) that showed that the Tories weren’t as responsible for our current mess as I would’ve thought. Phrases such as ‘sink or swim capitalism’ and ‘socialism for the rich’ commonly used by the left are used to describe a system which can be seen in a very different way.
It is, quite simply, much better to go into politics with a clear head and a centrist viewpoint because, as I’ve learned, the former is exactly the same as the latter. It’s also a good idea to do work experience like this, because you’ll get the inside scoop; a good idea of what really goes on in Westminster. And, whatever your political ideology, you’ll probably be surprised.
By Jacob Montgomery