Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.
After my Saturday morning of canvassing in Hitchin, I had to rush home to finalise my references for two friends who are embarking on the perilous journey otherwise known as the Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB) – the process of becoming a Conservative candidate at the next election.
With this in mind, and remembering one of my maxims, namely that very few people in life will ever give you advice that you didn’t know already, I shall try and share a little bit of what it is actually like to be an MP.
Although I thought I was pretty well informed before getting into Parliament in 2017, aged 31, I can safely say that there was a huge amount that I didn’t know, and I made several mistakes as a result. I have tried to describe the aspects that might not be immediately obvious to you, or at least they weren’t obvious to me.
- Make sure your spouse is fully on board. Tip O’Neill is famous for having stated that “all politics is local”. I would take it one step further: politics starts at home. Before you embark on this rollercoaster, you have to make sure that your spouse really understands what it might be like. There will be a lot of late nights away from home. If you have young children, as I do, this will often present a logistical nightmare for most of the week. Before you get elected, agree whether your spouse will appear on any political leaflets, and whether they will attend constituency events – because you will avoid a less than amused wife wondering why their face is on 40,000 leaflets going around your local town (much grovelling was required on my part after this episode). Just as importantly, make sure they get to know at least a few of your colleagues and their spouses: it will make their whole experience less lonely and alien. They will often see the more mundane side of life of an MP, not the glamorous bits. You should try and make them feel part of the whole journey. There is a reason why a lot of politicians get divorced – the demands that politics puts on a marriage are really extraordinary.
- People remember. Once elected, although you may be the youngest, most junior and irrelevant member of the parliamentary party, outside the Palace of Westminster people care what you think and say. They will remember it. The random utterance to a friend down the village pub will now be repeated to all and sundry. The little joke at the opening of a leisure centre that fell flat will be captured on a smartphone. Be careful, and remember you are always on duty. Alcohol is rarely your friend. On policy matters, resist the temptation to promise the impossible or undeliverable to get through one election campaign, or one tricky hustings. It will be much less significant for attracting votes than you think, and can really hurt you over the long term if you get it wrong. Your statements will be remembered. Your opposition will not allow you to forget them.
- You deal with the one per cent as an MP, but you have to keep thinking about the 99 per cent. When I say the one per cent, I do not just mean the wealthiest one per cent. I mean the poorest one per cent – those who are often in dire need of help. (The most political one per cent: those who write you regular emails. The most Conservative one per cent: your Party members. The most anti-Conservative one per cent: opposition activists.) The problem is that 99 per cent of the voters are not any of these people. You will barely hear from them. You always need to try and find ways to understand what makes them tick, what they are thinking about, and how to show them that you’re working for them. This is hard.
- People still respect the role of MP and it really matters. I have written on this site about how I believe the role of MP can be upgraded and improved, but I am very clear that the position of MP in this country is still a very special one. For example, when you go to a local primary school and the children have spent the morning preparing very thoughtful questions about Parliament and government to put to you: they may remember the session for the rest of their lives. So don’t be blasé about it; prepare for these visits properly, and take an interest in everyone of whatever seniority. It matters to them, and even if they don’t vote for you. Over time, hopefully, they will have respect for you , which will stand you in good stead in the long term when something goes really awry – as in politics it invariably will at some stage.
- Beware of the media. Without journalists, you can’t do your job properly as an MP. They are part of the furniture. Often they know the best gossip from inside government much faster than most of your colleagues, and can help you understand where things might be moving. Yet always beware. They have a job to do, and it is not to make you feel better, or to promote your career. It is to get bylines and top stories. Never forget that a chance remark in the queue for coffee in Portcullis House can end up in the newspapers somewhere under the ubiquitous “senior Tory” label. If you enter Parliament having not been a special adviser (as I did), you also need to remember that your more media-savvy colleagues will often be using the media in a more aggressive manner. Much of what you read will be not very accurate – not necessarily the fault of the journalist, but of your colleague who has fed them the piece of information. So treat everything with a watchful, careful eye.
- One of my good friends in parliament, a very capable minister, has a favourite saying – “There is no permanent hierarchy in politics”. From when I entered parliament in 2017 compared to the present day in 2021, there has only been one Minister sitting continuously in Cabinet throughout that time. If you entered parliament in 2010, over two-thirds of the Conservative Cabinet ministers had changed by 2015. Turnover is high. Be respectful of those senior colleagues, but don’t be in awe of them. To people nominally at your level or below you, those positions can all be reversed very quickly. Everything is always shifting; nothing is fixed for long.
As for winning the nomination for a winnable seat, luck is the most important factor. So try, try and try again.
Start the whole process as early as possible, because it can take ten or even fifteen years from having passed your PAB to getting into parliament.
Try and campaign somewhere every week (or do phone canvassing at CCHQ), because although it will be time consuming it will (i) get noticed by CCHQ, (ii) enable you to get to know volunteers and MPs from all over the country; and (iii) help you build your political understanding of different types of voter – crucial when you are in the final selection meeting for your dream constituency, and you are thrown a curveball question.
Most importantly, remember this. Keep going through all the disappointments of the process. It is the most interesting and enjoyable job you are ever going to have. All the effort will be worth it.