The average age of a British MP elected in the 2015 General Election was 50, which hasn’t changed from the average age in 2010 – showing no progress in that Westminster demographic in the last five years. Twenty year old Mhairi Black, MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South in Scotland, was elected in 2015 making her the youngest ever elected MP since 1667.
Yet, young people are still disproportionately underrepresented within the halls of Parliament, could the government themselves be to blame for this?
Over the last 30 years the average age of MPs has remained relatively stable around the average age of 50, and it’s clear there is a need for more youth engagement and involvement in Westminster. One way the government has tried to increase youth involvement is through volunteering. Volunteering has become, for many young people, the starting point for a career in politics and currently seems to be the only starting point.
Volunteering in Westminster usually entails interning in an MPs office, which for many includes uninspiring general office work; folding letters into envelopes, data entry and all of which is usually unpaid. Does this really provide young people with the relevant skills to gain a paid career in politics?
Volunteering is meant to be beneficial to the participant and the people you are working for, to provide you with the well needed experience to get a paid job in future and gain insider knowledge. Yet, from my own personal experience, I have found volunteering in UK politics to only be beneficial for the offices, who give the volunteers the jobs they don’t want to do themselves.
Experiencing it first-hand
When I initially applied to volunteer with my local MP I wanted to gain some experience in politics before graduating. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to do a week’s placement in a parliamentary office in Westminster.
It cost me a small fortune in travel, accommodation and living expenses for the week, and unfortunately the realities of the experience didn’t counteract those costs. I spent most of my time putting letters into envelopes, phoning up various people and putting petitions into the computer. The only highlight, and moment which felt like I was immersed in Westminster, was sitting in on PMQs.
The government seems to do very little to help recruit young people into politics and the only way in is through unpaid and unengaging volunteering – which doesn’t even give you the relevant experience to get a paid role in the sector. Most parliamentary internships seem to revolve around campaigning, which also don’t provide the experience or expertise which would help you land a paid job in the future.
When arranging my work experience in London I had no idea where to start as the information completely varied from office to office. Most MPs websites do not have a page relating to volunteering roles, what’s on offer or who to contact.
So I decided to email the offices directly via their constituent query emails. My local MPs office, who I volunteered for, arranged a week for me straight away after accepting my application. Though they gave no indication of the type of work I would be doing.
How history does it better
When arranging volunteering in the history sector I had a completely different experience. As I have a history and politics degree I decided to investigate working in both industries and I applied for a specific role as a tour guide for a heritage site. I was invited for an interview by the sites’ Volunteer Development Officer, whose role was to recruit volunteers and be their first point of call with any issues.
The Officer was in place to create a dialogue between volunteers and heritage workers, on what was working for the volunteers and what wasn’t. It’s safe to say I enjoyed my whole summer working there, even taking on two different volunteering roles.
Volunteering at a heritage site offered all types of work, such as customer service, behind the scenes and conducting research. Training sessions were also regularly put on for volunteers, to help them gain relevant experience and knowledge of the industry.
They offered coffee mornings and one-on-one advice sessions with people that worked in the industry. And there was also an active effort to ensure volunteers enjoyed what they were doing and wanted to stay. I enjoyed the experience so much I now work part time in the same place I did my volunteering a year ago.
The government should make an active effort to recruit more people into politics. Offering volunteering that would be relevant for young people, guiding them on what exactly is needed to get into the sector.
There should be a volunteering policy put in place across all MP officers, to make volunteering more engaging and make it easier to find available roles. As well as offering a minimum wage for volunteers, ensuring people from all background could have the opportunity to gain experience.
Training and help should be set up for young people who wish to apply for paid roles after or during their time volunteering, such as help with applications, offering references and interview techniques. Unpaid volunteering roles shouldn’t be offered by MPs that are unwilling to offer references, help volunteers with getting a paid role or those who have no intention offering you a paid role in the future.
The lack of young people in most areas of politics shows that this is a significant problem which is not being tackled. Westminster should take a leaf out of the National Heritage sites’ volunteering process, and the Houses of Parliament may start to look less like an over 50’s club and more representative of Britain.