The Politics in Action scheme was established in the Department of Politics and International Relations by Dr Tom Dyson and Professor James Sloam in 2014. Since that time, over 150 Royal Holloway students have participated in placements – spending one day a week over two terms with politicians and in government, with think tanks, advocacy groups and NGOs, charities and political communications teams in businesses – that have enriched their experiences, enhanced academic performance and often provided stepping-stones to future careers.
Despite the many successes of the module, in 2019 we (James Sloam, course convenor; Doreen Thompson-Addo, Careers Consultant) noticed that students from ethnic backgrounds who chose the course, tended to seek placements with charities and NGOs as opposed to placements in Parliament with MPs, which reflects a broader under-representation of ethnic minority groups in Westminster. In the wake of Black Lives Matter and our own research that emphasised students' prioritization of anti-racism in higher education.
Having spoken to students and undertaken research on the subject, we found that the lack of ethnic minority parliamentary placements could be attributed to two main factors: a lack of pre-existing contacts compared to the white students who took the course; and, a feeling that Westminster was not a welcoming place for non-white young people.
This presented us with a major challenge – within the context of the pandemic – about how to provide more opportunities for ethnic minority students to obtain highly-prized and competitive (e.g. with students from other institutions) placements in Parliament. Yes, this was and is pressing issued that requires action in light of broader issues of discrimination in British society highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.
To begin with, we used personal contacts established by Doreen Thompson-Addo, to begin discussions. Janet Daby MP (Lewisham East) was the most enthusiastic and pro-active, and engaged in discussions with us about the best way to open doors for non-white students. James Sloam provided the evidence-base on the under-representation of ethnic minorities for Ms. Daby and her team to reach out to other MPs in Parliament, and we agreed with them that a good way of moving forward would also be to speak to the Clerk of the House of Commons, John Benger, about including ethnic minority students from Royal Holloway in their Social Mobility summer internship scheme.
As a result of successful discussions with the Clerk and his team, they agreed to the participation of seven ethnic minority students from Royal Holloway each year onto a competitive summer internship programme to gain experience of working in the House, to increase their value to MPs and for political jobs more generally. In July 2021, our first cohort participated in this scheme. Students found the internship to be a motivating experience, ‘to be part of this world famous machine’ (Student A). It allowed them to engage in key policy areas with officials and high-profile politicians: ‘working with select committees, talking to people about policy enquiries and interacting with government’ (Student B).
In terms of their academic development, it was invaluable to ‘learn how bills were passed… and how they were constructed’ (Student C). It opened participants’ eyes to the nature of the policy process while also increasing their own confidence in contributing to this process: ‘I’ve discovered select committees and politics [in the House of Commons] is actually very interesting… [and] that I’m quite a pro-active person’ (Student D).
In the first year of this new initiative, with Janet Daby’s help and the skilling up of students through the Clerk’s Social Mobility internship, we were able to place four of our students with MPs, Preet Gill, Janet Daby, Marsha de Cordova, Chi Onwurah for two terms (autumn and spring) during the 2021-2022 academic year. The students are all very excited about these placements in Parliament. Politics in Action students have been invited to participate in the Clerk of the House’s scheme again in 2022.