Have you ever considered a career in politics? You may be more qualified than you think. And with women making up only 34% of MPs, we urgently need new voices to represent us in these roles.
There are 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK and although it is a job that encompasses many roles, their most important responsibility is to represent the interests and concerns of the people who have voted for them.
It’s a vitally important job, but one that many people would never consider, partly because it is a challenging career but also because most people wouldn’t know where to start to become a politician. Women, in particular, are less likely to become MPs with only one-third of MPs in the UK currently being women.
Taiwo Owatemi is one of them. She was elected as the Labour MP for Coventry North West in 2019. Before starting her career in politics, Taiwo was a pharmacist and she has some advice for women who are similarly interested in a career in politics, whether you’re just out of university or if you have spent your entire working life in a totally different industry.
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Understand what the role of an MP really is
MPs split their time between working in Parliament, working in the constituency that elected them and working for their political party. Some MPs become ministers with specific responsibilities in certain areas, like health or education but working for their constituents always remains at the heart of their role.
“I was always told that politics is a community service by my family,” Taiwo says. “The job of any politician whether or not it’s on a local level or government is to listen and to really hear people’s experiences.”
Consider how your unique experience might make you stand out in Parliament
Parliament has traditionally been dominated by white men from wealthy backgrounds but it is becoming more diverse, with more people from a variety of professional and personal backgrounds becoming Members of Parliament every election.
“I agree that parliament can be an old boys club and I can say that as the only woman who is part of the International Trade Committee,” Taiwo affirms. “[Women] represent 52% of the country and only a third of MPs.”
Taiwo emphasises the importance of diversity in parliament: “I genuinely believe that whatever background you come from, you’ve got something to give. And actually, your unique views and your lived experience is what you have to give to Parliament. I don’t think that should be a barrier.”
Nadia Whittome, the youngest Member of Parliament, is an example of the importance of diversity, Taiwo explains. “She was a care worker before she came to Parliament and she decided not to pursue university. She’s made a lot of changes since she’s been here and has impacted a lot of policies – she’s been incredible.”
Define what your purpose will be as an MP
If you think you might want to stand as an MP, Taiwo says the most important thing to figure out is why you want to stand. “You need to know what it is that you care about. What are the challenges you want to address? And you really need to hold on to that vision.”
Taiwo explains that being an MP can be a difficult job but having a strong ethos will make it worth it. “When you are knocking on doors on a rainy day, when things are tough, when you experience setbacks, it’s that that will be your motivation and the energy you need to keep going.”
It’s really important that when that voice in your head tells you you can’t do it, you have a supportive environment to help numb that voice
Choose a political party and develop a supportive network
“The next step is deciding what political party you want to join,” Taiwo says. Labour was the obvious choice for her, as she had attended Labour Party meetings before she considered running as an MP and she was also a member of the Fabian Society.
If you’re not already associated with or invested in a particular political party, Taiwo suggests doing some research online, attending meetings and becoming involved with organisations like The Parliament Project, a non-partisan campaign working to motivate, support and equip women to run for political office in the UK, focusing on practical, hands-on training and support. Another organisation Taiwo recommends getting involved with is 50:50, a campaign that works to get more women elected into parliament.
The Labour Women’s Network also offers training for women who want to stand for Parliament or be more politically active. MPs like Angela Rayner, Preet Gill and Emily Thornberry used the network to help them get elected.
Once you have decided why you want to run as an MP and the political party you’d like to stand for, you need to work on building a supportive network, Taiwo says. “Politics is all about teamwork. It’s about working together to get that change that you need. It’s really important that when that voice in your head tells you you can’t do it, you have that supportive environment to help numb that voice.”
Get some volunteering experience
If you don’t work in politics, volunteering is important if you want to become an MP. But Taiwo explains that this doesn’t have to be time-consuming and that it can be accessible to everyone. Taiwo went down the traditional route of spending a lot of hours with members of the community but there are other options that don’t require you to sacrifice too much of your time or money.
“A good example is if you’re an accountant, you could help a charity with some of their accounting,” Taiwo suggests. “It’s just about knowing what area you want to make the impact in and seeing what you can do to improve it.”
Ask yourself what you have learnt from previous jobs
You should also consider how your current job has offered you experience that might be valuable to your political career. “As a pharmacist, working at NHS hospitals, treating cancer patients every day, I would go to work and see the impacts that government cuts had had on our NHS patients,” Taiwo says. “It really did become clear that the people making a decision about health policies and NHS funding had very little experience as to what was actually going on inside the NHS.”
Taiwo used this experience working in the NHS as part of her manifesto when campaigning to become the Labour candidate for Coventry North West and in her campaign to become an MP. She is now a member of the Health and Social Care Committee.
Be prepared for a rigorous application process
Before you campaign to become an MP, you need to secure a position as a candidate for your political party of choice. The application process varies from party to party but when Taiwo was applying to become a Labour MP she had to send off what she describes as her “master CV”, which specified how each job she had had would be useful to being an MP.
“You then go through a rigorous round of interviews and the final stage is speaking in front of the local Labour party where you give your speech as to why you want to stand and what your vision is for your constituency,” Taiwo says, explaining that, for Labour, it is members of the party who make the final decision by voting to decide whether or not they want you as a candidate.
Reflect on the skills you will need as an MP
“I think it’s important to have good listening skills,” Taiwo says. “It’s really important you listen to people and understand their needs but you also need good people skills so you have the ability to have empathy for people and relate to them, in order for them to feel comfortable to really open up.”
Taiwo acknowledges that public speaking skills are important but that they can be acquired in different ways when you are elected if speaking in public is not something you are comfortable with.
Social media skills have also become increasingly important for MPs, something Taiwo realised when her speech from a Free School Meals debate went viral in October 2020.
Be open with your employer
Taiwo was elected as the Labour candidate for her constituency on a Saturday and started campaigning the following Monday, but her circumstances were fairly unusual as she was running to be elected during a snap election.
She had to leave her job as a pharmacist because, as an NHS worker, there was a conflict of interest, but Taiwo says she felt lucky that her organisation was supportive and allowed her to do so on short notice.
“I think it’s really frustrating that it can take a lot of time and money to become an MP because it does exclude a lot of people,” Taiwo acknowledges. “I was a pharmacist for the NHS – we’re not earning that much money. So I really didn’t have much savings but having that community support and my friends and family being able to help me did go a long way.”
You don’t earn a salary while running to be an MP but Taiwo explains that your political party should be able to support you on a financial level and that you can also run fundraisers to raise money within the local community. Additionally, if you are running for a normal General Election – as opposed to a Snap Election – and there are no conflicts of interest with your employer, you should be able to keep your day job until you are elected as an MP.
Once MPs are elected, they are paid £81,932 annually, and this is consistent for all MPs apart from those who are in ministerial roles, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition who are all paid an additional salary.
Dedicate yourself but know that time off is important
Research undertaken by The Hansard Society found that MPs work approximately 69 hours a week and the work undertaken by politicians is often emotionally and physically exhausting. “One of the difficulties I have is finding that balance,” Taiwo admits. “I work a lot on weekends and evenings and I always feel like I’ve got the news on in the background.”
“But I think it’s important to prioritise self-care,” she continues. “You’ve got to find the time – no one’s going to put it there. There are some days in my diary when I realise that everybody’s forgotten that I have to eat! It’s 7 pm and I still haven’t eaten.”
I felt like it was important when I chose to stand and that I knew my worth
Know your worth in order to deal with abuse and self-doubt
Receiving abuse, particularly online, is a very unfortunate part of being an MP and as a Black woman, Taiwo knows this all too well. She emphasises the importance of having a supportive team around you if you do decide to run for parliament, both in your personal and professional life. “I’m so lucky to have so many supportive MPs within the Labour Party and a strong sisterhood who are always supportive who I can lean on for advice and ask questions – no questions are silly.”
Taiwo also explains the importance of self-esteem, too. “I felt like it was important when I chose to stand and that I knew my worth. I knew my vision. I knew I wanted to stand and I just went for it.”
Remember that it’s never too late in life to become an MP
Although there are some people who know they want to get into politics from a young age, this is increasingly rare for MPs and it’s totally okay to decide you would like a career in politics later in life, even if you have no prior experience that you believe to be relevant.
“The average age of an MP is actually about 50,” Taiwo says. “Some of my colleagues that have done the switch later on in life felt like they’d had the time and the encouragement to use their voice and have their voice encouraged.”
“It’s really important that you never second guess yourself,” is Taiwo’s advice. “I think for far too long, women’s voices have not been heard so I would love to see more women in Parliament.”
The basic steps to becoming an MP, summarised
All that information might seem a little overwhelming, so here are the basic steps you need to follow in order to become an MP:
- Choose your political party – do some research online and attend meetings if you’re unsure which party to choose.
- Join your political party of choice and get involved with local campaigning and volunteering.
- Find a vacant seat where a parliamentary candidate has not yet been elected – if you’re a member of a political party, they should have a newsletter or a web page with this information.
- If you are elected as the parliamentary candidate, discuss your options in terms of continuing work with your employer and your political party.
- Then it’s time to start campaigning! If you get this far, make sure to look after yourself by putting a great support network in place in both your personal and professional life.
Recommended resources to help you launch your career in politics
- The Parliament Project (a non-partisan campaign working to motivate, support and equip women to run for political office in the UK)
- 50:50 (a campaign that works to get more women elected into parliament)
- Fabian Society (a think tank and membership network for people interested in left-wing politics)
- Labour careers information and opportunities
Taiwo Owatemi MP
Taiwo Owatemi is the Labour MP for Coventry North West and she has been an MP since 12 December 2019. She is a member of the International Trade Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee and is known, amongst other things, for her contribution to the Free School Meals campaign in 2020.
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