Alumni profile - Oliver Davis
While I was still doing my masters, I got my job as the Regional Organiser here in Tower Hamlets. It was very much the contacts, the networks and the exposure that I gained through my degree that was all part of one direct line to where I am now.
Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary? I wanted to be in London so there were four or five options. With Queen Mary, the Politics department had some real superstars. This, along with the advantages of its proximity to London and Westminster, the campus and the location, were the original deciders.
You did your bachelors in Politics and then your masters in Community Organising. Did you always know that you wanted to do a master’s degree or was it something you decided while you were at university? I decided while I was at university. In my final year, I became interested in the original experiment in community organising by the Labour Party. Between 2010 and 2015, the party did an experiment with some American organisers in an attempt to bring community organising into the Labour party and to see if they could use it electorally. I interviewed some really important people in that movement, like Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, and my supervisor in the Politics department said, “Look, you need to go and see Jane Wills in Geography.” She was the person who, at that time, was running the Community Organising master’s degree and, although I was not her student, she was incredibly kind, helpful and supportive through my final year dissertation for my undergrad and that was how I decided I wanted to do a masters in Community Organising. Tragically, the year that I started was the year that the Geography department stopped the practical course in Community Organising so what I ended up doing was a master’s in Human Geography with a specialism in Community Organising. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to be a Community Organiser and it would help me directly in my career.
When did you first become interested in politics? My whole life really. When I originally went to university when I was younger, I dropped out and went and worked in the City, then lived in Central America for a few years before my wife and I came back here in 2010. She went off to university in 2013 and she said, “You’ve always wanted to do Politics, you should do it” and I did. It was always something I had wanted to do.
When you were at university, what was the political climate like and did you ever get to go to parliament during your studies? Yes! As I was a mature student, I wasn’t entitled to my first year of funding so I had to work full-time while completing my first year which was quite hard. It was in my second year that I got involved with the Labour Party. I was also, by this time, involved in the Labour Society on campus, and that was when Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party, so it was incredibly exciting. When I joined the society, it consisted of around seven people – we were like a little rag-tag bunch who would occasionally get together. Then, in 2015/2016, we ran hundreds of events, we had hundreds of members and we won society of the year – it was a massive thing and that was the making of us - it was our introduction into politics and it was wonderful. It is still one of the proudest moments of my time involved in the Party. What we managed to do at Queen Mary was amazing. There is a joke in London politics that so many people involved in the Labour Party have come through Queen Mary Labour and the University is really well known and well respected as being the breeding ground for Labour politics in London, certainly during that period. There are probably fifteen of us working in Labour in London from that intake at that time and we are all still fairly close and try to get together once a year – it’s really special.
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help you get into your career? Do you think you still use what you learned at university now in your job? I would say it absolutely directly got me into my career because it was while I was at Queen Mary that I started running teams in Bermondsey and Old Southwark which was our nearest parliamentary constituency. A team of Queen Mary canvassers and I walked through the Rotherhithe Tunnel at 4am on polling day to canvas and we all did a 20-hour day and won that seat which was really special. I knew from about a month into my degree that I wanted to be an organiser but that was my introduction to organising election campaigns. From there, in 2016, while I was running Queen Mary Labour, I sat with a group called ‘Students for Sadiq’ which was a London-wide group mobilising students for the Sadiq Khan election campaign. Then, in late 2016, while I was doing my master’s, I ran my first election campaign here in Whitechapel, which was a bi-election, and which I did as a volunteer. While I was still doing my masters, I got my job as the Regional Organiser here in Tower Hamlets. It was very much the contacts, the networks and the exposure that I gained through my degree that was all part of one direct line to where I am now. Having that time and space and having the people around to do it was definitely a helpful thing - It was such a pleasure. I still do not understand how I managed to have a job and be involved with the Labour Society as well as doing my degree – it was a bit crazy!
It sounds like you were juggling a lot! Yes. The worst thing was that when I was doing my master’s, I had planned to leave the part-time job I had been doing, take a month off to write my dissertation and then start my Labour job in May. However, there was a snap general election in 2017 so I had to start a month early and had to write my dissertation while running an election campaign! I did not do as well in my master’s as I did in my bachelor’s but it was all worth it.
What does your role as a Regional Organiser involve and what does a typical working day look like for you? As a Regional Organiser, I am responsible for around a quarter of London so I have 8 boroughs and in those boroughs, there are 21 constituencies of the Labour Parties (CLPs). When an issue comes up with an MP, a local party, a ward, an assembly member, a Labour group of councillors or a council leader, I am the point of contact between all those different stakeholders in that area and the national party. If, for example, we are trying to roll out a new procedure like boundary changes or some instruction from the party, it is the Regional Organisers on the ground who actually implement it with the relevant stakeholders. Often, unfortunately, we have to play the role of trouble-shooters - so if, for example, there are arguments going on within a Labour group of councillors, we will sometimes go and join their meetings. If there is a very contentious vote at a party or if there is some bad behaviour, we will go, officiate, and try to calm it down. We try to handle issues of complaints and misconduct and then, whenever there is an election, we take charge of all the campaigning that goes on in our patch. In my case, during the general election, I was full-time in Barnet, running the election campaign in those three seats. We lost all three by the way so that went well! Sometimes if there are bi-elections somewhere else, we’ll be moved to other parts of the country to work on election campaigns there.
What would you say you enjoy most about your job? The thing that fascinates me most, and always has done since the very beginning, is the relationship between volunteers and the party. What is it about the ways that volunteers are treated and how you structure their work that means that they give up so much of their time and why do they come back? I think the key insight for me is always, as a volunteer, I want to make sure my time has been well used and that I have made a difference. Therefore, the thing I like most about my job is trying to ensure that when activity is going on in my patch, the volunteer resource is being used efficiently. That is really quite a geeky answer but genuinely that is what gets me out of bed in the morning – like “Right, how are we going to get all of these people to give up their time to help us go and win the election?” But without getting too far into the philosophy of it all, the reality is most of them want to actually be there to make a contribution so it’s about giving them meaningful work to do and structuring that.
Can you talk about a more challenging aspect of your role? We always strive to be seen to be fair and to be neutral but, inevitably, people feel that if you have not come down on their side of a particular issue, you have been partisan. That accusation can always sting and party staff often come in for criticism. We don’t really have a right of reply so that can be quite disempowering sometimes.
Did you always live in the area or did you fall in love with Tower Hamlets through studying at Queen Mary? I moved here for Queen Mary, we stayed, and we are not moving!
What would you say are some of your favourite memories of your time at Queen Mary? The Labour Society. I really enjoyed all the Mile End Institute stuff – that was always really cool. We organised a fantastic debate in 2015 where we got Queen Mary Politics lecturers to play the five parties and we had a mock debate and filmed it in the Mason Lecture Theatre – it was incredible. I really loved the British politics lectures and the parliamentary studies modules – particularly Tim Bale’s modules (he’s bit of a legend!).
Different people are on different journeys at university at different times of their lives and I was always blown away – because I was a mature student – by the ability and the maturity of people who were, basically, kids – you know, 18, 19, 20 year olds – it was a constant source of admiration for me.
What are some of your hopes and plans for your career going forwards? I always wanted to run a key seat in a general election and I had the opportunity to run three in December 2019 so I’ve done that. I would like to progress in my career, become a Regional Director in a few years’ time, and run the London region. I honestly cannot see myself doing anything else so I will probably work for the party for the rest of my career - but who knows? I am not looking that far ahead.
What would your advice be to students who are applying to study politics at Queen Mary? How do you think they can make the most of their experience? I think having an open mind about where your politics are is a good start. I suspect that many people going to study politics think they know where they stand on things but actually, when you hear the things they say they are not so sure, so I would say to have an open mind about where your politics are and allow yourself to explore that a bit. I would also say to people, Parliament isn’t the only politics – there’s politics going on at local government level, in think tanks, in campaigning and everything else so just be aware of that. I think Parliament has a certain gravitational pull for people because it’s seen as the glamourous centre but lots of people aged 21 go off to work in there and leave after a couple of years because it’s just not what they thought it would be. If Parliament is the thing for you then crack on but there is a lot more to politics than that.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Oliver or engage him in your work, please contact Nathalie at email@example.com.