Much like the industry of politics itself, the House of Commons is hard to gain entrance to. The airport-like security is intimidating, you need a friend on the inside and you’re a little nervous that you might not fit in. But, fittingly for Creative Access, breaking those barriers and taking over committee room nine last night in the heart of Westminster is exactly what we did. Joined by a mixture of undergrads, interns, alumni and curious individuals from our community, we gained exclusive access to a panel of cross-party MPs, a member of the House of Lords, a political correspondent, and a mayoral advisor to hear how they built their careers and challenges they have overcome to get here.
‘This is your parliament.’
It was a strong opening statement from 2022’s MP of the Year and the panel’s chair, Catherine West MP. Previously a social worker in Australia, she went on to work for David Lammy MP and became leader of Islington Council, yet it was only on her third attempt to gain selection as Labour MP for Hornsey & Wood Green that she was successful. This was the start of a theme of the evening; perfect the skill of picking yourself up and trying again after rejection, and you’re likely to succeed.
Her main tip for succeeding in politics? ‘Don’t think that anyone is better than you, because they’re not.’
This was echoed by Ugandan-born, Cambridge graduate and House of Lords member, Lord Verjee’s inspiring take that young people are a force for politics and deserve to be here. Being told that this is ‘the most incredible time to be young…you have so much power’ by the founder of Domino’s pizza in the UK was just one of those experiences that we didn’t realise we needed – but we did! He shared some more serious advice for young people interested in politics: ‘In British culture, we put ourselves down, so make sure you work on your self-esteem and your mental health.’
His biggest tip for succeeding in your career? ‘Dare, care and share’. Dare to be innovative and think big, care about what you do and let that passion drive you forward, and share with those around you, because there are benefits of generosity and it’s also an important part of being human.
What we have in common
Alan Mak, Conservative MP for Havant, was quick to get the awkward bit out of the way: ‘We may not agree on everything’. And he was right, but seeing this cross-party collective on the panel was inspiring, and allowed space to discuss what they had in common: adversity and overcoming it to get into this difficult industry. Mak’s parents moved to the UK from China before he was born, and he grew up in York. He chose not to continue running the family business and became the first person in his family to go to university, where he pursued a law career. It felt particularly exciting for us to hear this story, as his is an inspiring one to all those who seek more representation in this industry. Mak was the first-ever MP from any political party with British-Chinese heritage and the first ever MP of British-Chinese heritage to be appointed as a government minister.
His top tip was that if you’re an aspiring politician, making sure you do some living first. He said his experience in different industries makes him the MP he is today.
There was an intimate moment when Rajdeep Sandhu, Political Correspondent at BBC Scotland, spoke about the imposter syndrome she’s faced because of the lack of representation in the industry: ‘I’m often the only brown person in the room…but I remind myself that this is my job and I’m here as a journalist. I’m here to seek out the story’. Sandhu shared insight into her world as a journalist in Westminster and gained the admiration of the room with her story of the non-linear journey she took to get to Westminster.
Sandhu’s top tip: ideas are your currency so make sure to make suggestions and share ideas in meetings.
Nothing is linear – stories from CA alumni
Sandhu spent years in different jobs before she landed her role at BBC Scotland age 25, including a year as a publishing intern through Creative Access. In a moment of admittance, she said a friend had encouraged her to apply for the role even though she ‘knew nothing about Scottish politics’ and spent ‘three weeks with basically no life’ while she prepared for the interview. Like the end of a great film, this hero got the part and she’s been a fixture around Westminster in the evenings interviewing politicians ever since.
In response to a question from a Creative Access intern currently placed at a TV news programme, Sandhu also said that having a journalism degree is not essential for this career. You can learn the skills on the job and having a beat or specialist knowledge in another subject such as history or politics can help advance your reporting.
Inspiring fellow panellist Njoki Mahiaini, advisor to the London mayor and another proud Creative Access alumna. Born to a Kenyan family in Harrow, she was extremely passionate about politics from an early age and aspired to be an MP – she emphasises that this is not the case anymore! A rejection from Cambridge university led her to Scotland, which opened the doors to Brussels, then NATO, then a thinktank and now the press office of the London mayor. It felt like a special, full circle moment when she spoke about how attending a Creative Access masterclass in parliament years ago led her to where she is in her career now.
Her top tip? Don’t over-promise. Meet the responsibility of your role and just do it very well.
Bells and networking
Alas, the bells rang, and the MPs had to leave for a three-party whip vote, and after more questions and a lot of networking, the night ended. We’d like to say a big thank you to everyone that joined us and to our wonderful panel.
See you at the next one!