Case study

Caseworker at the House of Commons — Heather Swadley

Heather has spent her career engaged in political campaigning and advocacy. Her research has informed parliamentary speeches and been included in political party manifestos

What first got you interested in politics?

I think my interest in politics started relatively early in life when I rather precociously decided I was a feminist at age four. My interest really developed during my time participating in competitive debate throughout high school. Through these debates, I learned about the fundamentals of political theory and foreign policy. While I ended up majoring in philosophy during my undergraduate degree, I kept returning to politics as my primary interest and therefore pursued graduate work in the field. I think politics is such an all-encompassing part of our everyday lives that it feels irresponsible to ignore it. I am currently doing a PhD in political science at the University of Pennsylvania and I am a Juris Doctor Candidate at Temple University School of Law.

Tell us about your experiences of campaigning and advocacy

During my MSc in International Politics at SOAS University of London I helped found and run a national mental health campaign within the Labour Party which focused on battling stigma, lobbying for reform, and fighting for services. This campaign was consulted on matters of mental health policy in the lead up to the 2015 general election, and some of our policy proposals ended up in the party manifesto. Moreover, we successfully lobbied for a shadow ministerial position for mental health. I also helped to campaign for the MP I worked for during the 2015 general election.

Since leaving the UK, I have been involved in disability advocacy in my academic and policy work. For example, this summer, I had the chance to complete a disability policy fellowship at Mathematica Policy Research in Washington, D.C. I have realised that there is a substantial gap in the political science literature regarding disability, and my eventual career goals include both challenging ableist norms in academia and society as a whole.

Can you describe a typical day in the House of Commons?

I was a constituency caseworker first and foremost, and while there were recurring themes in the cases I dealt with (such as housing), each case had its own details that made it different. Every day presented its own challenges when deciding how to best advocate for my constituents’ interests or produce high-quality research. As a caseworker, I had to learn an entirely different legal system than my own and dealt with a variety of issues, ranging from immigration and housing, to obnoxious ice cream trucks. I also helped with policy work on a frequent basis, during which time I helped research issues as varied as welfare reform to the effects of bat urine on old churches. I was always excited when my research would make its way into parliamentary speeches.

Aside from the work, which was intellectually stimulating, fulfilling, and interesting, there were always interesting events happening in the House of Commons. I got to attend Prime Minister's Questions, as well as committee hearings on several policy topics. I also got to interact with important people doing work in which I was interested. Working in parliament is truly a politics nerd's paradise.

What do you most enjoy about working in politics?

Feeling like I'm part of something larger than myself. There are a lot of jobs I could have where I’m bringing about profit for a company, but as someone working in politics, I always had the feeling that I was contributing to bringing about the changes I care about on both a micro and macro level.

What is the most challenging aspect?

The feeling of helplessness I encountered when I could not help constituents. I could make the best case possible for constituents who were truly suffering; however, because MPs have no executive authority over anyone I would write to, there was no guarantee that my representations would yield any change for the people in question. In this way, being a caseworker was rather frustrating at times.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I want to work in disability advocacy and policy, by either working for a policy-oriented non-profit organisation, a government position, or a legal role in which I can litigate disability employment discrimination cases. My PhD thesis is about the judicial politics surrounding employment discrimination cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I want to be part of crafting better disability policy and law, in whatever shape that might take.

What advice would you give to anyone considering studying politics?

Take advantage of:

  • all the great opportunities SOAS has to offer. The professors at SOAS are exceedingly engaged in your development as a thinker, policy-maker and academic, and I think that any student who doesn't take advantage of such caring and thought-provoking faculty members is missing out
  • everything London has to offer. There is a plethora of ways to get involved in politics and advocacy work in London beyond just working in parliament, and developing experience early will help you immensely as you try to forge a career in political work. Even volunteering can often lead to a fruitful political career.

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