Degrees can be fun if you know how to do them right. At university, in a bid to rescue a failing politics course while also avoiding the study of Marxist theory at all costs, I miraculously blagged myself a parliamentary internship.
For three months, I worked for a respectable Liberal Democrat MP and spent my time mooching around the Houses of Parliament, pondering which parts of my experience would piss off the taxpayer most and eating extremely well for under five quid a meal (I did some intern stuff, too, obvs).
Here's what I took away from my time there:
IT'S WEIRD BEING SURROUNDED BY 650 CELEBRITIES THAT A LOT OF PEOPLE DISLIKE
Entering Portcullis House (the glass building next to Parliament, which is essentially a sixth form common room for MPs) for the first time feels like walking into a political Panini sticker album, minus the stats, and with no way to tell who plays for which team. You quickly realise that not only do you not know as many MPs as you thought you did, but also that any one of the people surrounding you may well be hated by the general population.
Working in Parliament also guarantees at least one (admittedly quite minor) MP anecdote per day, ranging from being bumped into by human Weeble Ed Miliband, to standing next to the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the urinal. My personal best: watching Sadiq Khan trip up a step, and seeing Ken Clarke do a kind of weird hybrid burp-sneeze thing in a lift, and then standing there rigid for what felt like a millennium while everyone pretended absolutely nothing had happened.
MPS' POSTBAGS ARE LIKE CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS OF CRISPS AND PORN
Some MPs publish records of every gift they're sent; others don't. But all of them get sent sacks of random free shit every week with a pointless to useful ratio of about 9:1. I don't know what the ITV press team think members of Parliament are doing in their precious spare time, but I can guarantee you they're not watching any of the never-ending stream of post-watershed drama DVDs they're sent.
Alcohol, snacks, pens, umbrellas and flowers are the usual goodies sent to your average constituency MP, but as you climb the greasy pole, the gifts become more interesting. Interns working for more senior MPs can look forward to surprises including: a bespoke wood-carved chest of drawers containing individually foil-wrapped dates; exotic-looking plants; and a box of 500 grouse and pheasant flavoured crisps.
On the downside, they should also watch out for photos of mutilated badgers sent by people opposing the cull, and pictures of opposition MPs photo-shopped onto the bodies of porn stars.
CONSTITUENTS HAVE LITERALLY NO IDEA HOW PARLIAMENT WORKS
You know those people who news anchors try to vox-pop outside the Wolverhampton Argos on budget day in an attempt to narrow down complicated domestic and international economics into the sort of "how many pints can I buy for a tenner" politics that gave rise to UKIP? Or those "ordinary" people they shove into the audience on Question Time to prove that people with bad cardigans and very bizarre opinions are part of the electorate, too?
These are the people who contact their local MPs, sometimes on a weekly basis, essentially asking them to move mountains (usually somewhere away from their back gardens). Most of them know nothing about how Parliament operates and how little power their elected representatives actually have. One of my intern friends spent a whole day answering emails from furious constituents who thought their MP had resigned, when she'd actually just quit a junior ministerial post as Parliamentary Private Secretary. Granted, titles and big words can be confusing, but also: the internet exists.
IN PARLIAMENT YOU CAN EAT HALF A CHICKEN FOR £3
Readers of The Sun might grimace at Parliament's choice of delicious subsidised food, but for an intern chronically into their overdraft living on nothing but a £5 lunch allowance, it was a lifesaver. Aside from the one canteen dedicated to serving daily Sunday roasts, the food there is pretty diverse for an archaic institution made up of mainly middle-aged white men. Seriously, the range of jerk curries in Portcullis House is exceptional.
ONCE YOU GET A PASS, YOU CAN GO PRETTY MUCH EVERYWHERE WITH UP TO SIX PEOPLE
Granted, getting security clearance takes fucking ages, especially if you've moved house more than twice in your life, like a terrorist (and foreign interns and anyone with a more vibrant criminal record might not even get one at all). But once the lanyard is around your neck, that Grade I listed UNESCO World Heritage Site is all yours, seven days a week.
Not only can you explore the Houses of Parliament at leisure, but you can actually take people around with you. This usually means giving any constituents who show up a guided tour, fudging the historical significance of the Magna Carta to doe-eyed day trippers. But it also gives you a great place to take your mates for a pint. Highlights included the broken glass and fag butt-covered roof overlooking the terrace (until that guy caused the security to ramp up their attention-paying) and the "secret" chapel underneath Westminster Hall where the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison hid so she could state her residence as the House of Commons in the 1919 census (see, you do learn some actual stuff).
EVEN WESTMINSTER GETS AUTOMATED CALLS ABOUT WRONGLY SOLD PPI
Nobody is spared from the pause followed by an automated voice alerting you to the possibility you may have been sold that thing you know you haven't been sold, and also don't really know anything about. Not even Members of Parliament.
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THE PARLIAMENT YOU DON'T SEE ON TV IS EITHER FALLING APART OR RESEMBLES A TRAVELODGE
The Parliamentary Estate is a juxtaposition of grand and drab. The Great British Parliament you're used to seeing on TV is opulent and luxurious – an architectural bastion of the British elite. The rest of it, however, is a tatty labyrinth of corridors barely held up by crumbling walls, and windowless rooms that look like they were decorated by a pub landlord sometime in the late-70s.
For interns and staff based in the slightly newer adjacent 1 Parliament Square buildings, offices look almost identical to a Travelodge lobby, with the only real add-ons the MFI-framed portraits of people of supposed political relevance.
In my case, there were four staff (including the MP) crammed into a tiny attic office overlooking Big Ben on one side, with the daily chorus of protesters on the other. The one toilet on the floor was always rendered out of order by large middle-aged man shits, and there was a massive stain near the door where the office manager had tripped and flung his entire cup of coffee up the wall.
A LOT OF THE STUFF YOU SEE WOULD PISS OFF THE TAXPAYER
There's plenty of excess that comes with parliamentary schmoozing that would get the average taxpayer highly fucked off. Most MPs probably are in politics to "help people" or "change things for the better", but it's hard to believe that when you notice that some of the safe-seat MPs don't even bother themselves with such mundane issues as actually showing up to work to debate and vote. But then why would they when there's more important stuff to be getting on with, like going on foreign trips or polishing off a second subsided plate of jerk chicken for lunch.
A LOT OF THE STUFF YOU SEE WOULD PROBABLY MAKE THE TAXPAYER LESS PISSED OFF
I'm not going to make any friends saying this, but after working in Parliament, I've developed much more sympathy for MPs than I had when I started. Not the turn-up-once-a-week-to-fund-the-second-home-in-Pimlico fuckwits, but those who battle 24/7 for their constituents in a gruelling and archaic political system.
Honestly, most MPs are seriously busy – spending hours sat in a parliamentary debate to get a minister's attention for 30 seconds; committee meetings; late night votes; listening to constituents for hours in a surgery; going on local radio; opening the local train station, chip shop, school playground or donkey sanctuary – not to mention the endless, interminable stream of letters and emails, alongside trying to be a mother or father, wife or husband, or simply a human being.
Obviously loads of us work hard, but there are plenty of people in the UK doing less work than your average MP for far more money, and they can probably expense the cab home. It was actually quite humbling to realise that, at some point, some of these people got into politics because they were as disillusioned with the system as the rest of us and wanted to do what they could to change it.
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