Work experience and a commitment to politics are more important than your degree subject when gaining work behind the scenes as a politician's assistant
Working as a politician's assistant, you'll provide administrative support to an elected politician. You'll help with secretarial tasks, research and publicity.
You can work for:
- Members of Parliament (MPs)
- Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs)
- Members of the Welsh or Northern Ireland Assembly
- Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
You may be referred to as a politician's assistant, a parliamentary or constituency assistant (depending on where you are based), a personal assistant (PA) or an executive officer.
Although job titles and locations vary, the basic task is to do whatever behind-the-scenes work is necessary to enable Members to represent their constituents. Politicians generally have between one and three assistants.
Although tasks vary depending on whether you are based in the local constituency office or parliament (London, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Brussels or Strasbourg), you'll need to:
- respond to enquiries from constituents (known as progressing casework), other politicians, the media, lobbyists and pressure groups
- perform secretarial duties, such as managing the politician's diary, making travel arrangements and taking minutes at meetings
- undertake all administrative duties, such as filing, ordering stationery, responding to correspondence and updating databases
- carry out research into local, regional, national and international issues as required, and ensure the politician is made aware of any relevant matters
- arrange surgeries for constituents and offer support on the day
- write press releases, newsletters and mailshots to promote the politician's work and update their website
- assist with campaigns before and during elections
- provide administrative support in relation to expenses and help to deal with budgets
- attend public and private functions to assist the politician and sometimes stand in when the politician is unable to attend
- liaise with members of government and local government, party head quarters, other politicians and their staff, embassies, commissioners, relevant interest groups, the media, relevant voluntary sector organisations and constituents
- help draft amendments for reports and prepare briefing material
- provide the politician with the support needed to get an issue on the political agenda, e.g. research or liaising with key individuals or groups.
- Starting salaries vary according to the exact role, but are usually between £15,000 and £23,000 nationally (£17,000 to £25,000 for London).
- With experience, in roles such as senior executive officer or administrative manager, salaries range between £18,000 and £28,000 nationally (£21,000 to £31,000 for London).
- At a senior level, office managers and principal secretaries can earn up to £26,000 to £38,000 nationally (£30,000 to £41,000 in London).
If you are a parliament-based assistant, you can expect to earn slightly more than a constituency-based colleague. Although there are guidelines, politicians have some flexibility when deciding the salaries of their staff. For more details, see Working for an MP (W4MP).
Income data from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are generally 9am to 5pm, with extra hours likely at certain times, such as during the run-up to an election, when preparing high-profile legislation, and at times of national or political crisis.
There are part-time opportunities, and some assistants work for two politicians simultaneously.
What to expect
- The work environment varies substantially, depending on whether you are based at one of the political centres of the country, the European Union or in local constituency offices.
- The job may be stressful, particularly during elections, because of work pressures and job uncertainty, which is an ongoing issue. During parliamentary recesses, working hours are generally less pressured, except during the party conference season in September and October.
- The job can be extremely rewarding and satisfying. Enjoyment and success are often dependent on the dynamics of your relationship with the politician.
- It is very important to be committed to the policies of the employing member's party and membership is often necessary.
- Travel within the working day is not common, but it will be necessary to spend time away from home for party conferences. Overseas travel is more likely if you work for an MEP.
This area of work is open to all graduates but a degree in the following subjects may increase your chances:
- politics and international relations
- public administration and social policy.
Entry without a degree or HND is not usual; however exceptions may be made if you have excellent secretarial skills, which are particularly needed in the job.
A postgraduate qualification may be an advantage, especially one that provides in-depth knowledge of specific policy issues, but it is not essential.
You will need to have:
- excellent oral and written communication skills
- good organisational and research skills
- strong interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate with a range of audiences
- the confidence to deal with senior politicians, the media, lobbyists, constituents, etc.
- a highly professional manner and a proactive approach to work
- tact and diplomacy
- integrity and an understanding of the importance of confidentiality
- reliability and the ability to work well unsupervised
- good IT skills
- the ability to work as part of a team and on your own initiative
- conscientiousness and careful attention to detail
- a practical and efficient approach to work.
You may need a higher level of numeracy if your role involves managing finances or statistical research. Competency in a second EU language is a significant advantage if you work in the European Parliament.
It is essential that you have relevant work experience, such as shadowing a politician, an internship at a constituency or parliamentary office, or volunteering with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or think tank.
An interest in politics and current affairs is necessary and you should be up to date with local, regional, national and international matters and the party's political stance on key themes. Membership of the relevant political party is often required, or at least empathy with the party's principles.
Involvement with your university's politics society will demonstrate your interest, but be aware that some types of political activism can be viewed negatively. Involvement in activities such as a student council or students' union is beneficial.
Speak to the politics department and politics society at your educational institution and keep up to date with politicians' newsletters, etc. Networking is an excellent way of finding out about opportunities and making a good impression.
Employers of politicians' assistants are, by definition, politicians and political parties.
The politicians may be members of the:
- European Parliament (UK Office)
- Northern Ireland Assembly
- Scottish Parliament
- United Kingdom Parliament
- Welsh Government
All the parties represented within these parliaments and assemblies employ politicians' assistants. Even the parties that do not enjoy parliamentary representation may employ paid assistants if they have sufficient funds, but salaries and working conditions are likely to be lower than in the larger parties.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Dods Group PLC
- Working for an MP (W4MP)
- Political parties' websites.
- Individual politicians' websites.
Competition is strong and many posts are obtained by applying speculatively, as vacancies are often not advertised externally. Recruitment usually reaches a peak in the run-up to a general election and there is often a 'shakeout' of staff immediately afterwards, regardless of whether or not the party has been successful.
Contact party headquarters and regional party headquarters to enquire about opportunities. Send speculative applications to individual members and make sure they are tailored to their interests.
The majority of your training as a politician's assistant is on the job, with more experienced assistants training up new members of staff.
A great deal is learned from experience, especially where casework and dealing with constituents is concerned.
Information about courses is circulated internally to parliamentary and constituency staff. A learning management system is provided to the staff of MPs, which gives access to classes, e-learning courses and a learning record.
The Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology (PICT) department provides training in IT and the House of Commons offers courses on issues such as immigration law and welfare benefits to MPs' staff. Find out more at Working for an MP (W4MP) - Training.
Politicians generally encourage you to attend relevant external training courses to ensure you are equipped with the skills you need to do your job well.
Courses include how central and/or devolved parliament and Westminster work, and information sessions provided by policy bodies and departments prior to legislation being implemented. A list of organisations that provide relevant training is included on the W4MP website.
It is unusual for politicians to allow time or provide financial support for assistants to gain undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications. In terms of building up your skills portfolio, it is important for you to develop as many skills as possible to enhance your employability and to be aware of and seize training opportunities, as there is very little job security in this role.
The skills, experience and knowledge you gain make you very employable, particularly in roles where you can use your research skills and understanding of the political system.
If you are a constituency-based assistant, it is likely you will see a move to a parliamentary office as the next step.
You should aim to take on increasing responsibility and build up your experience by specialising in a particular policy area or by being involved with select committees. This will also allow you to establish useful contacts and make your name known. Try to create a portfolio of press releases, articles and policy involvement.
As you progress, you may carry out financial and line-management duties and you can also move into the area of speech writing and research.
Career moves may include:
- working for a high-profile politician, such as a minister, or for a member of the European Parliament in the constituency office or parliamentary office in Brussels or Strasbourg
- working for party headquarters in a research or policy role
- pursuing your own political career supported by your own assistant(s)
- taking on an advisory role for senior members of the party's parliamentary team.
Politicians' assistants are favourably regarded by employers in other parts of the political system, external bodies and all organisations in between, so other options are:
- working for a lobbying company, political consultancy, pressure group, think tank, trade union, etc.
- working for a non-governmental organisation (NGO), a charity or the Civil Service
- entering a career in the media, perhaps in political journalism or political programming
- pursuing a research career with an educational or research institution.