30 things every would-be politician should do this summer

Inspired originally by Journalism Grads: 30 Things You Should Do This Summer and prompted by Stephen Tall, it’s become a summer tradition for me to run a list of 30 suggestions for would-be politicians, particularly those new to public office or seeking it in the next few years.

As ever, a new summer brings a new lick of paint for the list, with a few updates here and there and my thanks to those who commented on the previous lists:

  1. Sitting on a summer holidayLook up a piece of legislation, read it line by line and keep on reading it until you understand what every bit means. Being able to understand the detailed wording of proposed legislation (or, at council level, motions) should be a key part of the role of an elected official. Understanding wording that others glaze over is also a useful, if quiet, way of exerting influence on what actually ends up happening. If unsure which legislation to try, you can start with this one which, helpfully, was and is widely discussed online.
  2. Go canvassing. There’s plenty to follow in this list about technology, but politics is about serving the people and you can’t do that if you hide away from them or only talk to people you already agree with. Canvassers are usually very thin on the ground, so you should find your offer of help is warmly welcomed.
  3. Go and find three interesting facts about paperclips. Seriously. You’ll have to find out all sorts of information about all sorts of topics you’ve never thought of before, and there have been millions of paperclips for decades. How hard can it be? (Rest assured: it can be done. I know six.)
  4. Read Empires of the Sea. If you want to understand the modern world, you need to understand the interplay between Christianity and Islam. Many in the west don’t appreciate the historical legacy from centuries of warfare centred around the Mediterranean. This book is an enjoyable way of remedying that with its account of the climax of the naval struggle, principally between the Ottoman and Spanish empires, for control of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century.
  5. Read Down the Tube. It’s a great account of the London Underground PPP scheme. It’s of interest to far more than those wanting to get in to London politics, for it also provides a clear but detailed account both of why so many people were attracted to PPP (and PFI more generally) – and the many, many ways they can go wrong. Now that PPP and PFI have failed in so many ways it also leaves hanging the question of if not them, what instead to tackle the issues that the book so clearly describes prompting their creation?
  6. Get a longstanding local grot spot sorted. Find the longest outstanding pot hole, piece of graffiti or dumped rubbish and get it sorted. Don’t just report it once to the council but follow it all the way through to getting fixed. Chances are you’ll learn one of two things: (1) how longstanding issues are often only longstanding because no-one has ever bothered to take them up, or (2) how the buck can be passed around and fixing an issue requires someone with the persistence to see it through.
  7. Attend two meetings of your local council. Especially useful if you want to be a councillor, as if you don’t do it before you get elected you’re in for a shock afterwards.
  8. Spend half a day volunteering in a local community organisation.
  9. Spend a day with more small children than you have hands, preferably on public transport and pushing a pushchair along a pavement. You wonder why some people spend so much time campaigning about the state of pavements? Try pushing a pram – even on pavements which look smooth to walk along – and you’ll soon find out why campaigning on the sorts of issues some people like to sneer at actually means so much to the wider public.
  10. Spend half a day in a court observing a trial or two. Preferably not your own. Crime fills the rhetoric of politicians, but have you noticed how rarely MPs or councillors show any knowledge of the details of how the legal system actually works – or often doesn’t work – in practice?
  11. Submit a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. It’s a key tool for unearthing information.
  12. Read Irrationality: The Enemy Within. There is a fair number of good books on how fragile our thought processes are, the common logical fallacies we fall in to and the way statistics can be mangled and misunderstood. This one’s my favourite.
  13. Get your email inbox down to zero and keep it there by the end of each week. As you become more successful and more high profile, more and more people will email you. Unless you get into good habits of email management now, you’ll end up drowning. Try Googling, “how to keep my inbox empty” if you think this is impossible.
  14. Subscribe to at least 20 sites using an RSS reader, 10 of which are not party political. Using an RSS (feed) reader is a huge time-saver and an effective way of keeping up with news and information. But there’s no point just being an expert on party politics if you want to be an elected official.
  15. Learn how to mailmerge letters and emails. Once you know how to do these you can communicate better and more quickly. Mailmerging is a big time-saver.
  16. Write and get published at least two blog posts. It may be that becoming a blogger yourself makes sense, but if you suspect that’s not going to be your style then make use of one of the many political sites which accepts guest posts.
  17. Film and upload a clip to YouTube. Best if it doesn’t feature you drunk. But if you’re so anti-technology that the thought of doing this makes you blanch, accept that you’re not going to be able to cope with the modern form of politics which relies heavily on people’s ability to communicate personally via gizmos that involve electricity.
  18. Set up a Twitter account and get 50 (non-spam) followers. It may not turn out to be the best way for you to communicate in the decades to come, but the general skill of learning and making a success of new methods of communication is one that will be useful all through your career.
  19. Watch a video of yourself with the sound off. Study your body language. With a bit of luck, you won’t discover the drunken sailor mannerism I found when I did this a few years ago. But you’ll almost certainly spot at least one mannerism to work on.
  20. Watch Bob Roberts. There are stacks of political movies. This one has satire that’s actually funny and not just worthy. Enjoy.
  21. Watch The Thick of It. It’s funny, coarse – and scarily close to the truth.
  22. Watch Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton. Political idealism meets the public and leaves stage left, chased by a dog. Lists of recommended viewing for politicos are normally full of American shows. This one ain’t American but it’s rooted in our social and political history. More worthy and less fun than a certain US show that involves people walking down corridors talking at high speed, but somehow I doubt you’ll be short of viewing opportunities for that in the years to come – and this one gives you an understanding of the politics of our own country.
  23. Thank someone. Today.. It’s remarkable how poor many people who want to get on in politics are at saying “thank you”.
  24. Each Sunday, read a newspaper whose editorial line you strongly disagree with. (And don’t be such a bloody liberal as to say “I can see a bit of good in them all”.) It’s no surprise that the most successful politicians often have good friends in other parties – because that helps give them an understanding of different perspectives and also helps save them for myopic partisanship.
  25. Get a letter published in a national newspaper. You can say something clear, succinct and interesting on a topic people are interested in, can’t you?
  26. Deliver leaflets. Get back into the fresh air and communicate with the public. If you’re not willing to take the time to deliver leaflets, why should other people do it for you?
  27. Learn how to triumph over bureaucracy by reading Microsmographic Academica in hard copy or online. Brilliant satire that makes for wise advice.
  28. Sort out your personal finances. Money chaos is the last thing a politician needs, for so many reasons. But also, understanding how to organise your own finances is also a handy sampler for what to look out for in public sector budgets.
  29. Go and visit your local war memorial. I’m a great believer in the importance of politics in helping to sort out those minor inconveniences that blemish our day-to-day lives, but that should never make us forget the larger picture.
  30. Take a week off without looking at anything online. No cheating with a bit of browsing via your mobile phone either. Many people in politics end up ridiculously busy, working the sorts of hours that make them pine for the idea of having to work merely as many hours as a junior doctor. Learning to switch off is vital.
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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • If your a councillor I’d add to that try to solve a problem in your ward using only the contact information that would be available to members of the public and without saying you’re a councillor.

  • Ruth Bright 30th Jun '11 - 9:51pm

    Try (as I am at the moment) to write an article about Beatrice Webb at the same time as organising a “Disney Cars 2” birthday party for a dozen five year-olds. In the unlikely event of pulling off this double you will know that there are no further heights of multi-tasking left to scale.

  • Nick (notClegg) 4th Jul '11 - 4:29pm

    @Ruth, I believe that Beatrice Webb once described referenda as “the counting of ignorant opinions”: an interesting discussion point in the aftermath of the events of this Spring?

  • Ruth Bright 6th Jul '11 - 7:25pm

    Nick (not Clegg) – bless you, at last, an interesting fact about her!

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