On political party staff and volunteers
By Amy Rust, University of East Anglia
Amy Rust is a second year student at UEA reading for a degree in Media with Politics.
On think tanks and pressure groups
By Isabel Stevens, University of East Anglia
Once the first flurry of MP emails is underway, attention in the Talking Shop office turns to think tanks and pressure groups.
When it comes to insider views of British politics, think tanks have an access-all-areas pass. For one thing, their staff members often have fingers in a number of pies, bustling through the corridors not only of their own offices but also of Westminster; of the many groups whom I have contacted so far, a large proportion have MPs past or present amongst their ranks.
For all that, think tanks are very often free from political allegiances. True, some – such as Progress (Labour) and the Bow Group (Conservative) – aim explicitly to support one particular party, and most identify with a particular space on the political spectrum. But many groups welcome researchers and analysts from all corners, and with backgrounds ranging from academia to business, from banking to media.
The result is that think tanks often escape the party loyalty which constrains politicians, and are free instead to concentrate their considerable expertise on research and advocacy. Think tanks thus provide the links between politicians and the society they govern, between Westminster and the people it serves. In short, they develop and disseminate the ideas which have the potential to change the world.
There can be little doubt, therefore, that think tanks and pressure groups are of the utmost importance in democratic politics – and of the utmost interest to a project such as Talking Shop!
How does one go about recruiting think tanks to Talking Shop? In some respects, the process is perhaps easier than might be expected. Deciding upon suitable questions, for example, is streamlined by the fact that think tanks (unlike politicians) tend to have narrow remits focusing upon just one or two policy areas.
In other respects, however, think tanks provide Talking Shop with real challenges – not least because there is simply a bewildering array of them. There is no online directory of think tanks and their pet projects. Neither is there a phonebook to pull together contact details. Indeed, with some research institutes comprising hundreds of analysts, it is not always easy to decide who best to contact in the first place – and once that decision has been made, it is sometimes nigh-on impossible to work out how best to contact them.
It has been, and continues to be, a hugely rewarding job. I am now more au fait with internet searching than I ever thought possible. I can hone in on ‘About Us’ and ‘Contact Us’ tabs with more accuracy than anyone I know, and I am a dab hand at rooting around in dark corners of the internet in the desperate search for contact details. All of this has culminated in the production of a sprawling colour-coded spreadsheet which fills me with an absurd sense of pride.
I am also more familiar than I have ever been before with the causes and campaigns making up the web of British politics. The spreadsheet in question informs me that I have emailed people on fifty different subjects – amongst them housing, religion, health, the environment, the European Union, development, privatisation, and democratic accountability. Some of these are topics whose very existence in political debate was all but new to me; many of them are topics whose roles in a liberal democracy I had never considered.
The responses received from think tanks have been overwhelming in their generosity and detail. To say that the last five weeks have opened my eyes to the breadth and complexity of policymaking is trite, but unashamedly true.
Today, incidentally, I emailed my hundredth group. Here’s to the next hundred!
Isabel Stevens is a third year student of International Relations and European Politics at the University of East Anglia.
By Alejandro Perez-Benn, University of East Anglia
To start off my first blog entry, I would like to say that I am thrilled to be a part of the Talking Shop project. I am a first year student of International Relations at the University of East Anglia and, as you can imagine, I do not have much experience in doing political research being a humble fresher! So, when I was accepted to intern in the project, I was delighted: ‘Let the work begin’ I thought.
I didn’t quite know what to expect when I started on Talking Shop. Nonetheless, I was excited to commence what I hope will be the first of many research projects. So, almost six weeks into the project, I thought that it would be a good idea to focus on how the project is going so far.
My first week flew by, perhaps because of the short December days, but probably because of the amount of work Jamie (a fellow intern) and I had to complete! Our initial task was to compile two lists: one of suitable questions for the project, and another of potential respondents to invite to contribute to Talking Shop. We spend the morning searching through old and current module guides, textbooks and a rage of Internet sources, and it wasn’t long until we had a quite substantial list of interesting questions about British politics. To make things easier, we then categorised these by topic: political institutions, the UK and Europe, Health and the NHS, the environment, and so on.
Once we had finished our list of provisional questions, we began working on a second one: identifying potential respondents and their contact details. Something I learnt straight away was the importance of organisation and communication in a project such as this. Without them, I fear that our research would not have been anywhere near as straight forward. And so, when it came to the respondents, we decided to organise things geographically: working our way from the East of the United Kingdom – after all, we are in East Anglia – to the West. Jamie and I then began identifying the names and email addresses of local Norfolk MPs and promptly began sending our invitations to participate in the project. I must say that it felt special sending our first email, that moment when you realise that once it’s sent, there’s no going back. By the end of the second week, we had extended our efforts to surrounding counties and had contacted over 70 politicians with questions directly targeted to their own expertise and interests.
In the weeks that followed, Jamie continued contacting national Members of Parliament, while I turned my attention to the UK’s Regional Assemblies in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Everyone was invited to take part in our research and I am happy to say that many were very obliging. After spending all the time that I have on the project – and juggling this with an undergraduate degree – I understand how hard it must be for a politician to find space in their timetable to write a small contribution for us, and because of that I am very grateful for all the responses that we have received.
The research over the past five weeks has been extremely interesting. It has provided me with real insight into the world of politics, and has significantly broadened my knowledge about it. Not only that, I feel that this internship is helping me to gain research skills that will prove vital in the years ahead of me: organisation, communication and most importantly of all, proof-reading (we all know how embarrassing it can be when an email is addressed to the wrong person…). I am looking forward to the following weeks and the work in store ahead of us greatly.
Alejandro Perez-Benn is a first year undergraduate student reading International Relations in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Language Studies at the University of East Anglia.