Sat, 1 April 2023

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Advice Surgery

Advice Surgery
6 min read

Westminster can be a testing work environment, for MPs and staff alike. Marie Le Conte is on hand to help

Q: Should I be worried that I don’t care about Brexit anymore and that the whole thing mostly makes me want to scream?

  • Labour staffer on the verge of a nervous breakdown

A: Well, yes and no. I think all of us in Westminster are having a hard time caring about one thing for so long; after all, if we’d wanted to only talk and think about one specific issue for years at a time, we’d be in academia, not politics.

The solution I have found that helps me is to develop partial Brexit deafness; pick a few areas of it you really, really need to know about for your job and skim past the rest. It can be hard not to get swept up in the hysteria but fundamentally, most of us do not actually need to follow every single update, argument and controversy.

Allow yourself to care less so you can care more, basically.

Q: My MP is quite senior, holds a very wide range of interests and has two dozen plates spinning at once. To add to this, we’re a remarkably small office with far below the average number of staff. Things are starting to go undone, or completed to below the necessary standard. How do we convince our MP that another member of staff is necessary?

  • overworked Tory staffer

A: This is a tricky one. As you well know, MPs are given little guidance when they first get elected, and each office will be run differently, which means that individual MPs can get comfortable in one way of working then have a hard time realising that their system simply doesn’t work – especially if they’ve been in the Commons for a long time.

What I think you should do is get together with your MP’s members of staff, preferably outside the office or while they’re away, and compile a list of reasons why you feel you need an extra person, along with some concrete recent examples of when they would have been needed.

Put it all in an email – or a letter if your MP is particularly old-fashioned – and sign it together, then say that you would also like to discuss it in person. MPs can often be too busy to notice the bigger picture, and putting it in writing might help them stop for a minute and properly consider the issue.

In the best case scenario, they will then come back to you and discuss it properly. In the worst, they cannot retaliate individually as you all signed the letter, and if something bad happens because you’re all so overworked, you will have written proof that you warned your MP about it and they didn’t listen. Good luck!

Q: Our MP can be quite short-tempered and irritable at times. It isn’t bullying, and he doesn’t make personal comments, but can be unpleasant to be around and work for – particularly if there’s lots going on. Is this normal?

  • a Tory staffer who doesn’t know what to do

A: It doesn’t please me to write this but: yes it is. As I mentioned in the reply above, MPs tend to live in their own little bubble and function more as a series of tiny offices than a larger group with people above them. It isn’t ideal, and it should change, but as it stands, it is how things work.

If you know who they are, it could be useful to speak to people who worked for your MP before you; maybe they found ways to manage their anger, or deal with it in an effective way. Talking to other staffers is also always a good bet; I’m sure you do it already, but it is immensely helpful to have a network of parliamentary assistants who know what you’re going through, and can offer advice or just a drink with someone who has similar problems.

Depending on your relationship with your MP, it might be worth trying to talk to them, and essentially tell them what you told me; while they’re not being abusive and you understand that their work is high-pressure, their behaviour is stressful and unpleasant, and even making some minimal efforts would mean a lot. If it helps, try to emphasise the fact that you love your job and want to be as good at it as possible, but that does mean that they also need to be a good boss, or at least a decent one.

Finally – and I am aware that this isn’t a good solution for the short-term – you should try to organise around this, both with people in your parties and others. There should be a better way for parliamentary staffers to solve their workplace issues, and things might be moving at a glacial pace in the Palace on that front but if you all keep talking about it, you can make the situation better, if not for you, then at least for future generations of MPs’ aides who will thank you for it.

Q: My friend is an MP’s staffer who is still single at 40. He’s shy, but funny and good-looking, and dares to have interests outside politics. But he can’t bring himself to tell women that he works for an MP. He tells them he is an advice worker, which is kind of true but, you know, not the whole story. He’s getting old and I am worried that he’ll end up single and embittered like me.

  • a Labour friend just trying to help

A: I have a lot of sympathy for your friend. A lot of us have found ourselves in the uneasy situation of not wanting to date in the Westminster bubble, as it is often too incestuous, but also struggling to connect with people outside of it.

My advice would be for him to be upfront about his job; after all, if he is passionate about what he does, he deserves to meet someone who either shares his interests or is at least comfortable with a partner who cares deeply about politics.

May I suggest he tries online dating apps? That way, it would be easy for him to both say what he does for a living and explain that he has other interests outside of it. Anyone who doesn’t find the combination appealing probably doesn’t deserve him anyway.    



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Read the most recent article written by Marie Le Conte - Unparliamentary Language: Sharon Hodgson


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