What a load of wonk!

Ellie Levenson on a life in politics

If your interest in politics is more than just academic, and you harbour dreams of one day being a politician yourself, then there are many things you need to know that the average politics course won't teach. Where, for example, are the modules in networking, schmoozing and getting elected? And what about sleeping in meetings without snoring, presenting the best angle for photographs and failing to answer questions? And they are just some of the skills you'll need.

There is a scene in Pretty Woman - a film that is ostensibly about the relationship between a prostitute and her client, though it has many layers of political messages (no really, it does) - where Vivian, played by Julia Roberts, is taught by the manager of the hotel in which they are staying how to use the correct knife and fork. It's not that she didn't know how to use a knife and fork to start with, but that she didn't know the nuances of using them in that environment.

This is precisely how young politicos feel as they attempt to climb their way up the greasy poll. For be it a constituency meeting of your political party of choice or a speech by the Prime Minister, rule one in politics is finding someone to explain the protocol to you. For example, are you allowed to ask the panel a question at a meeting you have organised? Can one wear blue to a Labour Party event and red to a Conservative Party event? If you pledge to stand down as leader of a committee after a term of office, do you have to stick to your promise?

Once you've worked out how to behave, you need to work out where to be seen. If the aspiring politician wants, they could be at an event every evening - Young Conservatives on Monday, Young Fabians on Tuesday, constituency party meeting on Wednesday, a seminar on Europe on Thursday, Intern Network drinks on Friday. But the key is knowing which events you should be at. A good rule of thumb is that if you have to RSVP, it's probably OK. If anyone can attend, then it's likely no one will, and there's no point going out somewhere if no one knows you've been.

Equal to knowing where to be seen is the art of bullshit. You don't have to have eaten at the Cinnamon Club, but it does help if you don't look confused and ask "where?" when someone mentions they were there. Similarly, during the first few years of your immersion in politics, you will recognise few names, outside of members of the cabinet and shadow cabinet. (Come to think of it, no one knows the names of the shadow cabinet, so that's not a problem.) But if you don't know who someone is, there's no shame in surreptitiously jotting down their name and googling them later to see who they are - anyone with any kind of profile will have at least a few hits. Remember not to get caught out in a Nat Tate way, though - Nat Tate being the name of an artist made up by the novelist William Boyd, who had much of New York pretending they knew the work of someone who didn't existed.

You also need to work out which camp to align yourself with - think Blair and Brown. Despite naturally wanting to choose the winner, personal gain should never be obvious as your primary motivation. Nor, however, should you do yourself down like the young female politico who once turned up at a young Labour meeting and declared that when she grew up she'd like to be a politician's wife. You must deny your ambition at all times, while making it patently clear what your ambitions are.

All of this is a game, albeit a game with consequences for your career and the country, maybe even the world. But what happens when you have a real policy idea that you are convinced could help your fellow men and women and make yourself a name in politics?

There are three main ways of getting your ideas known: think-tanks, journalists and politicians.

Think-tanks deal with ideas, and are therefore always looking for the next big one that will mark them out as being ahead of the game. Once a think-tank has adopted an idea, and depending on how much money and effort it is prepared to invest in it, a number of public and private events take place - public events so that the specific think-tank is associated with the idea, private events to reach the decision-makers who can really influence policy. If the right wonk is invited, the idea can be taken on before you can recite the new Clause Four. As Michael Portillo pointed out in his review for the New Statesman of David Hare's play Stuff Happens: "In a world that, thanks to technology, we can increasingly control and predict, some of the most disturbing and unforeseen events occur because someone somewhere had a thought."

There's only one thing think-tanks are more interested in than ideas, and that's headlines. If you have no profile of your own, then it's best to find someone to be your co-writer, preferably someone who is important enough to get the attention of journalists. In fact, try to ensure your co-writer is a journalist, so that they have every reason to write about the idea. To ensure recognition, however, you must lay claim to your idea at every possible opportunity - in letters to papers, articles in scholarly journals and in the pub.

The third option is to interest politicians in the idea, or more helpfully, members of the government. To get access to cabinet ministers, you must make friends with their special advisers, political appointees who can insert lines into speeches, arrange meetings with ministers and ensure invites to seminars where ideas are discussed. Big ideas may be harder, but I asked a few people in the Westminster village how - if one thought of a great soundbite, a "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" equivalent - one might get it into a speech. I suggested to a civil servant that he could write it on scraps of paper and leave it dotted around the department, hoping the minister might chance upon it, in the loo perhaps, and take it on board. He said no. Then I asked a special adviser. He said: "Sure, put it on an e-mail to me. Can't promise I won't claim it as my own, though." But if your main objective is to get the idea out there, rather than to seek the glory, this is one possible route.

There is a fourth route, which is to enlist the help of Billy Bragg. Though few people agree with him on Lords reform, his pet subject, the key policy-makers are just the right age to be Bragg fans and are therefore keen to have him speak at all their events.

Finally, in your whistlestop tour of what the political courses won't teach you, every night you get home you must say to yourself: "These people are not my real friends. They will drop me the minute I am no use." Then take ten minutes and call some of your older friends to talk about other things. Oh, and one more thing - I'm told it helps not to use Pretty Woman as your main cultural reference.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, America - God, gays and guns