The Institute of Politics Director’s Internship program offers Harvard College students summer internships in politics and public service in the United States and around the world. This summer, two Harvard students flew to London to experience working in British Parliament. They landed in a whirlwind of a first month as they experienced Britain’s snap election. We caught up with Scott DeAngelo, an intern for Member of Parliament Rachel Reeves, and Sunaina Danziger, an intern for Member of Parliament Seema Malhotra, about their roles in the election, their takeaways from the historic moment, and a comparison to the United States’ 2016 presidential election.
Scott and Sunaina on Arriving in the Middle of a Campaign Season
Scott: The snap general election that was called by British Prime Minister Theresa May in mid-April made what was already sure to be an incredibly interesting summer internship with Labour MP Rachel Reeves all the more exciting. I arrived in England on May 28 and went straight to Rachel's constituency of Leeds West for the last 10 days of the campaign. As soon as I arrived, I was sent out to knock on doors and talk to potential voters. This required learning some on-the-job information incredibly quickly about British politics!
Sunaina: My experience in the office of Seema Malhotra MP has been an incredibly rewarding whirlwind thus far. When I first arrived in London, I was thrown into the last stretch of an unanticipated campaign season ahead of the June 8 General Election. This gave me an intimate perspective both of Seema’s constituency in Greater London, and of how campaigns are run in the U.K. (quite differently from campaigns in the U.S.). Five minutes into arriving at Seema’s campaign office in Hounslow-West, I joined Seema, her staff members, and local volunteers on a canvassing session within walking distance from the office. My campaign tasks mostly included knocking on doors and engaging with voters, distributing leaflets and delivering letters, calling volunteers, editing language-specific pamphlets, and phone-banking.
Scott and Sunaina on Differences between American and British Elections
Scott: Getting involved in the campaign also made me think about differences between this election and the recent US elections last fall. First of all, in the U.K there is a campaign cap of several thousand dollars per candidate, so there is far less money spent on elections. Secondly, while mobilization efforts such as door knocking and phone banking are strongly used here, there are few, if any, TV advertisements. And in terms of a time interval, there was only six weeks between the announcement of a general election and the actual election itself. This is vastly different to the US, where election dates are always predictable and thus campaigns are years in the making.
Sunaina: I was struck by the differences between campaigns in the U.K. in the U.S., especially after working at the massive, machine-like Hillary campaign headquarters in Brooklyn last summer. The most fundamental difference is that each candidate for MP in the U.K. is designated a limited (and fairly small) campaign budget. This meant it was incredibly costly to send letters and leaflets by mail and thus, one of the most important parts of the campaign was mobilizing local volunteers to hand-deliver letters and leaflets on Seema’s behalf. A limited budget also means that campaign seasons do not come alongside a barrage of T.V. advertisements, typical of most elections in the U.S., be it local or general
Scott: Certainly, one of the many things that will stick with me from this summer is the moment on election night when the entire campaign staff as well as volunteers and supporters were in a pub when the BBC released the exit polls showing there was a possibility of a hung parliament [no one party wins the needed majority]. This was an outcome hardly anyone expected, and the shock of everyone in the room was palpable. Feelings turned especially jubilant around 4 a.m. when Rachel's result was announced- she had won her seat and my summer internship would then continue at Parliament in London.
Sunaina: Whether this was particularly the case for Seema’s constituency, or reflective of the U.K. as a whole, this election seemed to hinge far more on direct voter-engagement and community involvement. I spent about 11 hours on Election Day knocking on doors and speaking to voters with Seema, convincing a number of undecided voters to go to the polls and to vote for Seema. Experiencing the election and understanding the dynamics underpinning Seema’s constituency provided me invaluable background experience as I transitioned back to the office in Westminster the following Monday.