A life in politics

Some would say that politics and law go hand-in-hand, so it is no surprise that so many lawyers end up in the Commons.


A life in politicsLAWYERS-TURNED-MPs

ANDREW DISMORE

Andrew Dismore, the Labour MP for Hendon, is one of many former lawyers who populate the Commons. A Labour Party member since 1974, he was elected to Westminster City Council in 1982 and served as leader of the Labour group on the council between 1990 and 1997. He was instrumental in exposing local government corruption in Westminster, including the sale of three cemeteries for 15p. As a solicitor, Dismore specialised in advising victims of accidents and crime. He worked on several high-profile cases, including the Zeebrugge ferry disaster and the Kings Cross fire.

MICHAEL HOWARD

Michael Howard was called to the bar in 1964 and was appointed a QC in 1982. He was elected as MP for Folkestone & Hythe in 1983. In May 1993, Howard became Home Secretary, a position he held for four years. Following the 1997 election Howard was appointed Shadow Foreign Secretary. He was elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party in 2003, but announced his intention to step down after the Tories lost the general election in May.

TONY BLAIR

The son of a barrister and lecturer, Tony Blair studied law at Oxford and went on to become a barrister himself. After standing unsuccessfully for the Labour Party in a by-election, Blair went on to win the seat of Sedgefield in the 1983 general election, aged 30. At the age of 43, Blair became the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812. Blair is married to barrister Cherie Booth QC of Matrix Chambers.

JACK STRAW

Jack Straw was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on 8 June 2001. Educated at Brentwood School, Essex and Leeds University, he was called to the bar in 1972. He worked as a barrister from 1972 to 1974 following which he was special adviser to Barbara Castle from 1974 to 1975 and to Peter Shore from 1976 to 1977. Straw was Shadow Home Secretary from 1995 to 1997. He was Home Secretary from 1997 to 2001.

EDWARD GARNIER

Harborough Conservative MP Edward Garnier is one of the few practising lawyers in the Commons. He was called to the bar in 1976 and practises as a defamation and media law specialist from chambers at 1 Brick Court in the Temple, London. Garnier has been the MP for Harborough since the general election in 1992. This year he was appointed Shadow Home Affairs Minister.

Politicians are consistently ranked alongside second-hand car salesmen in the list of society’s most despised. Despite these criticisms, politics is a high-profile and often deeply satisfying profession that combines legal and welfare problem-solving skills.

Becoming a politician requires the ability to understand a range of complex issues and make tough decisions that will affect the future of a community or, indeed, a state.

Politicians take on a great deal of responsibility when they enter office. Their role involves everything from the introduction of new laws to the redistribution of wealth. They are in charge of providing society with adequate infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, as well as ensuring public access to the arts, museums and libraries.

A lot of lawyers use their academic qualifications and legal experience to develop a career in politics. One look at the corridors of the House of Commons is evidence enough that a significant proportion of politicians have a professional background in law. Indeed, at least 65 MPs in the commons are either practising or nonpractising lawyers.

But young lawyers thinking about pursuing a career in politics should be warned that the road to Parliament can be long and bumpy.

Conservative MP for Harborough Edward Garnier, who is one of the few practising lawyers in the Commons, says: “Politics is not something you can just walk into. You don’t have to be rich, but it would certainly be advisable to have some money behind you before embarking on a political career.”

“The first time I stood for Parliament was in 1987 in the seat of Hednesworth, a mining community in West Yorkshire. I lost, but it taught me a lot. Then in 1990 I was selected to stand in the seat of Harborough which I was elected to two years later. It’s a difficult path to take, but definitely a rewarding one as well.”

There are a few ways to get started in politics. The first is to work on a political campaign. If the candidate wins, there is a good chance of being appointed to a support staff position.

Likewise, volunteering on a campaign can be an effective way to get noticed. Volunteers who put in the time and effort will often be hired as paid campaign staffers. This opens the door to a wide range of work opportunities, including researching legal issues, fundraising, speechwriting and event coordinating.

Labour MP for Hendon Andrew Dismore suggests a career in politics should begin at a grass-roots level. “I started on Westminster City Council at age 27 and at the time I was the youngest sitting council member,” he says. “Although local government and Parliament are very different, I find that the politicians who start out on a council tend to find their way in Parliament a lot easier than those who don’t.”

Above all, most successful politicians advise aspiring young politicians to gain experience in the `real world’ before entering politics. “Not many people get into politics straight out of university and it’s not something I would encourage either,” says Garnier. “Life experience is an essential part of being a good politician. Get out there and do something different first.”

Most politicians would agree that lawyers have a certain skill-set that is ideal for a career in politics, but the extent to which law and politics go hand-in-hand is still a matter for debate. On one hand, Garnier argues there ought to be more practising lawyers moving into politics because an important part of a politician’s role is to analyse the pros and cons of complex new laws before they are introduced. “At a very simplistic level, the Government’s role is, in part, to make law. Lawyers are equipped to make sense of laws and to debate details within new regulations, such as the new anti-terror laws that are currently being discussed. I think there should be more practising lawyers in politics for that reason.”

On the other hand, Dismore insists that lawyers entering the world of politics should leave their professions at the door. “Being a politician is about getting things done,” he argues. “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about getting the job done. You can often tell the lawyers who are still practising because they are more interested in winning a debate instead of doing what is best for the people concerned. I think that law is a great background to have in politics, but lawyers should forget they are lawyers when they become politicians.”

Dismore says his background in law and business helped him in his role as a politician. “My days as a lawyer taught me a lot about problem- solving and dealing with people,” he says. “In fact, the vast majority of my job as an MP involves talking with people directly and helping my constituents with a variety of problems they come to me with.”

Politicians come under heavy scrutiny from the public and are often criticised in the media. Their paypacket is funded by taxpayers’ money and they are largely responsible for the distribution of wealth. In short, politicians are held fully accountable for how public monies are spent – a hugely contentious issue.

For Dismore, a typical work day means attending as many as 10 meetings for a wide range of subject matters. Picking a random day from his diary, Dismore says he arrived at his office to meet with constituents at 8am, he had a meeting with an Olympic Games steering committee at 9am, followed by a briefing with Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the same day he heard the Home Secretary give evidence regarding the controversial anti-terrorism laws and attended a meeting with the Fire Brigade Union.

“It’s double the work for half the money and sometimes, at the end of a hard day, I’ll question why I became a politician to start with,” Dismore says. “But there are those moments that are satisfying too – lobbying for something and finally seeing it come to fruition is very satisfying.”

Likewise, Garnier admits there are hard days, but adds that he feels honoured to represent his community in Parliament.

“My family has been in politics going back as far as 1546, under Henry VIII, so no one was at all surprised when I decided to join the world of politics,” he says. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of solving problems for my constituents. A lot of my work involves helping people figure out problems that, for whatever reason, seem too big for them to deal with – like securing council housing for instance. In a sense, that’s what lawyers do and perhaps that’s why lawyers make good politicians.