That's Life! Tap Dancer, Mum or TV Journalist-MPs Share Their Backgrounds and Offer Advice on the Path to Politics. (Political Studies Guide 2003)

New Statesman (1996), October 14, 2002 | Go to article overview

That's Life! Tap Dancer, Mum or TV Journalist-MPs Share Their Backgrounds and Offer Advice on the Path to Politics. (Political Studies Guide 2003)


Menzies Campbell QC

MP for North East Fife

I got to my current position by fighting the same seat three times! I devoted 11 years to it and drove 50,000 miles at my own expense in the process. There is no such thing as a "safe" Liberal Democrat seat. You have to keep fighting as if you were the challenger rather than the incumbent.

I studied arts and law at university. You don't need to study politics to be a politician. Experience and judgement are key factors in a successful political career. It's important to have a life both inside and outside politics. An understanding of business and industry, and areas such as arts and sport, are as important as knowledge of the mechanics of politics itself.

If a political career is your ultimate goal, I certainly recommend work experience placements. Understanding how legislation works and who has what powers is very useful. Placements are a good way to make contacts in a sector where personal relationships have great significance.

Gwyneth Dunwoody

MP for Crewe and Nantwich

Politics is the art of the possible. Not all "politicians" are aware of this, but life finishes up teaching it fairly sharply. I was always part of a highly political atmosphere. One grandmother was a suffragette, one an organiser of women's sections in the Valleys. My parents met through the Labour Party and, for most of my childhood, my father was a political agent. I delivered leaflets, stuck envelopes and absorbed political lessons from an early age.

Without that mixture of discipline and dedication, no one survives the heat of political battle. I did not intend to make a career of politics; my interests lay elsewhere. Indeed, I worked from the age of 16 in journalism and theatre, but had I been able to enjoy a university education, I have no doubt that I would have spent as much time in discussion and organisation as in study!

In the end, knowledge of people and strong determination to change the world is all you need. Oh, and the basic habit of crawling back into the arena when you've been knocked out. Without that, forget it. Better in a bank...

Shaun Woodward

MP for St Helens

South

Politics grabbed me while I was working as a television journalist on That's Life. The cultural elite have found it fashionable to dismiss the BBC's consumer affairs programme, which ran from 1973-94. Its use of phallic vegetables made easy pickings. But the elite understood neither the programme nor its audience of 15 to 20 million people. It was the people's programme. From tackling stubborn local councils, faceless bureaucracies and crooked lawyers to campaigning against child abuse and tranquilliser addiction, this was the real-life politics of people across the land.

When I was selected to fight as Labour's candidate in St Helens South at the last election, people most wanted to know about campaigns I had worked on for That's Life. It was certainly the best training for handling an MP's mailbag. It taught me that the things that make a difference in people's lives are the really "local" issues. Tip O'Neill was right-all politics is local.

Hilary Benn

MP for Leeds

Central

A political career is full of the uncertain and the unexpected. I joined the Labour Party when I was 17 and just got involved. All the experiences I have had--as a councillor, working for a trade union, as a school governor, a parliamentary candidate (I lost in two elections before I was chosen for the Leeds Central by-election) and as a member of the National Policy Forum -- have helped me enormously as an MP. It is a privilege to be entrusted to represent your constituents and I can't think of a better job. I studied Russian and east European studies at university--which goes to show that it isn't necessary to study politics to get involved in it. …

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