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MPs’ Staff: a study of the “unsung heroes” of parliament

Portcullis House Atrium

The work of parliament is made possible by over 3,500 MPs’ staff who carry out and support many of the roles that the public associate with MPs, both at Westminster itself and in constituency offices across the UK. These “unsung heroes”, as Speaker John Bercow has called them, undertake a wide variety of roles as part of their work. These include acting as a gatekeeper – monitoring the MP’s email inbox, responding to members of the public, the media, and lobby groups, and meeting with constituents. Staff can also serve as advisers – keeping up to date with recent debates and legislation, as well as relevant local, national, and international news before briefing their MP. Some staff have a crucial role to play in curating and maintaining the MP’s public image – drafting speeches and writing copy for press releases, the MP's website and Twitter. Others act as office managers, chiefs of staff and fulfil a wide range of administrative roles. Some staff may stay in their roles long-term, while others move on to pursue various other careers – in politics and beyond.

In short, MPs’ staff play a central part in the functioning of our democracy, yet surprisingly little is known about them.

Given the unique nature of these jobs and their close proximity to the heart of our democracy, the Constitution Unit is running a new project looking at MPs’ staff: who they are, what they do, and how they can best be supported in their role. The data collected by the project will greatly enhance knowledge and understanding of political opportunity structures, parliamentary capacity, and the functioning of parliament.

Key research themes

  1. Equality: how demographically representative is this workforce in relation to the population at large? What positions are held by people with different characteristics? How are characteristics distributed between MPs from different demographic groups, and between the political parties? Does the aggregate of 650 disconnected employment decisions by 650 MPs result in fairness, or unintended indirect discrimination?
  2. Parliamentary capacity: how appropriate is the distribution of roles and skill mix among this group for the workload in Westminster and constituencies? MPs are free to divide staff between Westminster and constituencies, and between different roles – but what choices do they make? What skills, qualifications and experience do those undertaking research for MPs possess? How diverse is that experience, and how is it distributed?
  3. Employment conditions: what are the advantages and disadvantages of existing practices? What opportunities exist for career progression, and how long do staff serve in the job? What do those departing (seek to) go on to do?

Survey of MPs’ Staff

The research will be conducted through a variety of methods. The largest part of this project is a survey of MPs’ staff running from summer – autumn 2019. The survey consists of four sections, with questions covering the following themes: demographics and background characteristics; political and work experience; current job and day-to-day activities; employment practices and parliamentary services.

Survey FAQs

Who are the Constitution Unit?

The Constitution Unit is a politically neutral research centre based at the Department of Political Science in University College London. The Unit has over 20 years’ experience producing rigorous, timely and independent research on British political institutions, and has a close working relationship with policymakers, including representatives of all political parties. Its work has been influential in shaping various reforms.

The Unit's work is endorsed by its Council which comprises of senior individuals who demonstrate the cross-party nature of the Unit’s work, and our links with Westminster, Whitehall and other institutions.

How can I complete the survey?

An email will be sent to all MPs’ offices with a link to the online survey. If you would like the link to be sent to you, please Rebecca McKee using the contact details at the bottom of the page. Note that you will need a verifiable parliamentary email address to complete the survey.

Do I have to complete it online?

No, if you would prefer to receive a paper copy of the survey please contact Rebecca McKee using the details at the bottom if the page and we can post one out to you.

Why do I need to give you a parliamentary email address?

We need to be able to verify that people responding to the survey work for an MP to ensure the results are valid. We will send a confirmation email to everyone who fills in the survey but we will not use this information for anything else. The email address will not be stored unless you explicitly give us permission to contact you for updates on the project or a follow up interview.

What will you do with my data?

Everyone who takes part in the survey are assured of anonymity. You email address which is used to verify your response will not be stored with the rest of the data.  Data will be stored securely in password protected files once the collection period has ended.

The data from the survey will be used in reports, publications and other academic outputs for the purposes of this research project. All findings will be reported anonymously and at an aggregate level. We will never seek to single out individual MPs, or individual staff, in the reporting of the results.

Who is funding this research?

The project is funded by the British Academy as part of a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to Dr Rebecca McKee.

I’ve got more I’d like to say, can I get in touch?

Absolutely, a further stage of this research will involve interviews with current and former staffers in order to explore the findings from the survey. We are very keen to hear from anyone who would like to be involved.

Project information

This project is run by Dr Rebecca McKee a Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit, alongside Professor Meg Russell.

Project Dates: Oct 2018 - Oct 2021

Funder: The British Academy

Scheme: British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship

Contact: Rebecca r.mckee@ucl.ac.uk / 0203 108 9279