I’m glad the debate about internships has really taken off. It became apparent to me soon after I was elected as an MP that (mostly) unpaid internships, along with, increasingly, Masters qualifications, were becoming a more or less an essential part of getting a job in politics, the media, journalism and other desirable fields. And that if they’re unpaid, and London based, this almost inevitably excludes young people from poorer families and those who don’t have a free sofa to crash on in London.
When I started taking on interns as an MP, I took on a couple of students from Leeds uni, who were doing it as part of their degree course. I paid them £400 a month out of my parliamentary staffing allowance. Later on we were told we weren’t allowed to do this; we could only pay actual expenses, i.e travel and food. I wasn’t comfortable with this, but neither was I in a position to pay an actual wage out of my staffing budget, without getting rid of a ‘proper’ member of staff.
I had some brilliant interns during the 2005-10 parliament. Some have gone on to work for senior Labour politicians, one’s in the European parliament as a stagiare, some are in the civil service trying to reconcile themselves to working with the new Government. (And then there’s Ellie of course, who started out as a humble part-time intern in my Bristol office, and has now become something of a phenomenon in her own right). I think most if not all of them would say that it was a valuable experience; that they not only enjoyed it tremendously but is was what they needed to get a foot on the ladder. And not all of them were from well-off backgrounds, or London-based either. One lad, from the North West, worked evenings in a theatre to keep himself afloat, and despite the late nights still voluntarily turned up at the Westminster office every day and did some excellent work. He’s now working for a former Cabinet minister. I’ve also never operated on the basis that it’s who you know, not what you know that gets you an internship. I’ve always advertised, for Westminster, or responded to people who contacted me out of the blue in Bristol (one day I will dig out Ellie’s pleading email: “I really want to make sure we don’t have a Tory government!”)
But still… I’m uncomfortable with the fact that internships aren’t open to everyone, that personal circumstances dictate whether someone can take up the opportunity, and that not being able to do an unpaid internship is a major barrier to social mobility. Andy Burnham is great on this issue. He totally gets it, having been in the situation himself as a young graduate from Cambridge of realising he was never going to break into journalism without working unpaid. He’s passionate about using his role as shadow Education Secretary to do something to address this.
Unfortunately, wrestling with this dilemma, i.e. not wanting to take on expenses only interns, has ended up with me not taking on interns at all – which means no-one gets the opportunity. This has partly been prompted by the departure of my Westminster researcher, and my decision to base all my staff in Bristol. I do have people ‘helping out’ in the Bristol office, but on a very casual basis and not coming in for more than one day a week. I’ve also got a few young lads coming in on work experience soon: two Somali lads from Bristol, and a mixed race lad from Luton who is my nephews’ stepbrother, if that makes sense. All of them approached me themselves, and all three are exactly the sort of person I want to encourage. (In the latter case I’ll be covering his expenses myself, seeing as it’s almost family.)
I’m now in a position where a member of staff in Bristol is leaving to go travelling,
which frees up some of my budget. In theory this means I could afford to pay an intern a living wage. But that would be instead of giving someone a proper paid, permanent job… I really want to be able to give young people the opportunity to break through into working in politics, but taking on a permanent member of staff would make a lot more sense in terms of actually getting the work done. I’m toying instead with the idea of having a summer scheme, where I give a young person from Bristol – perhaps someone who has just done their A levels and is looking to go to uni – paid work in my constituency office over the summer. This still would mean, however, that I end up paying my ‘proper’ staff less… After all, the money has to come from somewhere.
A fair few Labour MPs have come in for stick on Twitter for advertising unpaid internships. I agree – sort of – but it’s not as simple as it sounds to offer an alternative.