You don’t vote? Get the whips out

This is an article by Katie Matthews.
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I’ve just done a placement where there was scandal, fashion, paparazzi, whipping and a whole lot of celebrities. It wasn’t for a magazine and it wasn’t in a PR agency; it was at Westminster. Don’t stop reading, pleads Katie Matthews.

Government isn’t seen as very sexy compared to the world of celebs falling out of clubs at 3am. Therefore I expect that you haven’t thought about working in public affairs. But if you really want to make a difference to people’s lives and really want to make headlines, this could be the career for you.

I also suspect you don’t vote since only 61% did in 2005.

Being a PR student you probably have many opinions on the way your country is run and the actions of the government. For instance, when the government ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003 almost everyone felt strongly about this. Even so, more people vote for a Big Brother eviction than at a general election.

I worked for Andrew Robathan, my constituency MP but also the Conservative Party deputy whip, at Westminster. His role as deputy whip means he rallies his party to vote on various issues. But he was also the ideal person to discuss voting with, as he has much to do with Conservative Future, the branch of the Conservative Party catering for the under 30s and with a membership of 15,000.

He believes that the dumbing down of society is to blame for the lack of interest in politics. Politics is no longer a compulsory part of the curriculum and it’s not fashionable to be active in party politics. But this means that fewer people feel they can influence the policy process. But anyone can go and see PMQs by writing to their MP and most MPs value the opportunity to meet constituents to find out more about their opinions and learn about issues in their constituency.

Most MPs welcome students going in to help out. If you have press experience and a good writing style, think about doing a parliamentary or public affairs placement; it looks great on your CV and will guarantee fabulous and unusual portfolio pieces. And if that doesn’t tempt you, you will get to see more celebrities than flicking through an issue of Heat!

To help you navigate the corridors of power, here’s a simple guide to government and parliament.

The UK is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch in which ministers of the Crown govern in the name of the Sovereign. Parliament passes laws, approves taxation and debates the major issues. The House of Commons, the centre of Parliamentary power, has 659 elected Members of Parliament, each representing a local constituency.

Voters do not directly elect the Prime Minister, although he or she is also an elected Member of Parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats in the election, or which has the support of a majority in the new House of Commons, is, by convention, invited by the Queen to form a government. He or she becomes Prime Minister and chooses the ministers with whom a new government will be formed and appoints Ministers, who head individual Government departments.

There is no written constitution. Instead, the relationship between the State and the people relies on statute law, common law and conventions. The UK Parliament makes primary legislation and has the supreme authority for government and law-making in the UK as a whole.

Following devolution, the responsibilities of the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland changed considerably, although they retain their positions in the UK Cabinet. They ensure that the reserved interests of the countries they represent are properly considered in central government and they lead the presentation of government policy in their parts of the UK. They are also responsible for safeguarding and promoting the devolution settlements of their respective countries.

Many decisions made in the Houses of Parliament are made as a direct result of lobbying, the influencing of members’ votes either by parliamentary colleagues, constituents or outside pressure groups. When working in Public Affairs much of the work under taken is direct or indirect lobbying. Lobbying takes its name from the ‘lobbies’ of parliament where MPs gather before debates in the Commons. Traditionally, people wishing to influence the opinions of MPs or peers have frequented the ‘lobbies’ seeking to persuade members of the validity of a particular viewpoint.

Agencies are employed by organisations to represent their views to parliament in a variety of ways – by arranging meetings, organising protests or providing briefing material. MPs are also ‘lobbied’ directly by their constituents, local businesses and campaign groups on many issues.

Key Terms

MP- Member of Parliament

MEP – Member of the European Parliament

EDM – Early Day Motion

PMQs – Prime Minister’s Questions

White Paper – Documents produced by the government setting out details of future policy on a particular subject. A White Paper will often be the basis for a Bill to be put before Parliament. The White Paper allows the Government an opportunity to gather feedback before it formally presents the policies as a Bill.

Green Paper – Green Papers are consultation documents produced by the Government. Often when a government department is considering introducing a new law, it will put together a discussion document called a Green Paper. The aim of this document is to allow people both inside and outside Parliament to debate the subject and give the department feedback on its suggestions.

Whip – Whips are MPs or Members of the Lords appointed by each party to maintain party discipline. Part of their role is to encourage members of their party to vote in the way that their party would like in important divisions. Whips also manage the pairing system and often act as tellers during divisions.

Cabinet – The Cabinet is made up of about 20 senior ministers chosen by the Prime Minister. It decides on government policy and co-ordinates the work of the different government departments. Cabinet meetings are private and its Members should not disclose any information about them. They are also bound by the convention of ‘collective responsibility’ to publicly support the decisions taken at Cabinet.

Constituencies – The UK is divided into areas called constituencies. One MP is elected to represent each of these areas. The size and number of constituencies are reviewed at intervals of between 8 and 12 years by the Boundary Commissioners. Any changes must be agreed by Parliament.

Ballot – In the House of Commons this refers to the draw for Private Members’ Bills. The House of Lords ballot is used to select Thursday debates and topical questions.

Bills A Bill is a proposal for a new law, or a proposal to change an existing law, that is presented for debate before Parliament. Bills are introduced in either the House of Commons or House of Lords for examination, discussion and amendment. When both Houses have agreed on the content of a Bill it is then presented to the reigning monarch for approval (known as Royal Assent). Once Royal Assent is given a Bill becomes an Act of Parliament and is law.

Backbenches (backbencher) The backbenches are the seats where an MP or Member of the House of Lords sits if he or she is neither a minister nor a spokesman for his or her party.

Photo credit: Katie Matthews, Andrew Robothan MP

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