Internaware

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.

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Comments

  • Stuart Bruce  On February 25, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Thanks for this refreshingly honest post about interns. I face a very similar dilemma. At my company we invest a lot of time in making sure we offer good quality work experience placements. And we’ve had excellent feedback from both the PR students and lecturers who teach them. But it’s a big investment in terms of our time. In terms of actually getting the work done that they do it would be far more cost-effective for us to simply employ another junior account executive. But his would deny lots of people the opportunity to get good experience. Even before talking to Andy about it I had a big issue with making sure it wasn’t just ‘chums of mummy and daddy’ who got the opportunities. In a similar experience to Andy I grew up in a working class part of rural West Cumbria, I didn’t know anyone who could help me get my foot in the door. More than 20 years ago it took me almost 1,000 speculative letters to get my first opportunity in PR. That’s probably why I’m now so passionate about trying to give others that break. If we could afford to make every placement paid I’d love it. But the brutal commercial reality is that especially in this financial climate we can’t afford to. But I also feel it would be wrong of me to stop offering opportunities just because of that. We do always make sure that we pay proper expenses.

  • PhilD  On February 25, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Amen to this. Right now I’m doing an MA in London but there’s no way I can afford the minimum six months unpaid work as an intern. Problem is, realistically, having at least one internship preferably more is the *only* way into a political job. And I’m not alone in this, a quick straw poll amongst my fellow students suggests that at least half are in a similar position. Which is plain crazy, the current system means that the pool of potential applicants is drastically reduced, which is bad for us and ultimately bad for the political system as a whole. You’ll end up with, indeed already are ending up with, a generation of hacks who are there on their ability to pay, not on merit. Hardly ideal let alone appropriate for a supposedly modern 21st Century democracy.
    I think both from this post and discussions elsewhere, there’s an emerging consensus that the current system is untenable and needs reforming. As such, I’d suggest that this is a golden opportunity to review the whole system of interns and researchers. Of course whether or not you can get a consensus on a workable solution is a whole different ball game.

  • thebristolblogger  On February 25, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    This all seems the wrong way around to me. Why do you need to have a “political job” to have a political career?

    Creating a narrow Westminster-based career path for politicians isn’t the only way.

    I’d rather have Parliamentarians drawn from a wider range of ordinary experience than a bunch of graduates steeped in the weird nuances of Westminster, which you could learn in a year or two from scratch anyway.

    I’d vote – every time (regardless of party) – for a candidate who had spent ten years working on a till in Tesco over another lawyer/wonk/SpAd/journalist/researcher etc.

    • kerrymccarthy  On February 26, 2011 at 5:23 pm

      Well I did several years worth of Saturdays at the Golden Egg in Luton’s Arndale Centre. Do I get credits for that?

  • woodsy  On February 26, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Creating a narrow Westminster-based career path for politicians isn’t the only way.

    Agreed.

    I remember the old days when the Labour Party’s MPs came from the ranks of the working class and had at least done a ‘proper’ job of work, be that down the mines or on the factory floor. That generation is slowly dying out, as have most jobs in mining and manufacturing.

    It seems to me that MPs are coming from an increasingly narrow sector of society and the professions. How many do PPE at Oxbridge and their experience of work is either all within the party machines or as (say) lawyers? Far too many in my opinion.

    • kerrymccarthy  On February 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      There are actually quite a few Labour MPs from the 2005 and 2010 intakes from working class backgrounds. You just haven’t heard of them because it’s the one’s who did do PPE and work as SpAds who take the fast route to the top. This may be because they’re smarter and more able. It may not.

      And if a smart working-class kid makes it into the Cabinet – Andy Burnham or Jim Murphy for example – after going to uni, they’re still a smart working-class kid at heart. It’s a sign of progress that smart working class kids born in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t end up following their Dads down the mines or into the factories.

      • woodsy  On February 27, 2011 at 8:50 am

        It’s a sign of progress that smart working class kids born in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t end up following their Dads down the mines or into the factories.

        Indeed. I am one of those kids (as are my 2 siblings) and I’m keen to know how £9,000 p.a. tuition fees and the withdrawal of all but minimal support will affect the number of modern working class kids that follow in our footsteps. I would not have done a degree had it not been for a full maintenance grant and fees paid in full.

      • thebristolblogger  On February 27, 2011 at 9:15 am

        There are actually quite a few Labour MPs from the 2005 and 2010 intakes from working class backgrounds.

        It would be interesting to see the figures on this. Obviously we all get to hear about the Tristan Hunts rather than the people in the background.

        Jim Murphy of course was President of the NUS – not a ‘proper’ job in most people’s eyes – and then entered Parliament immediately. Burnham is Oxbridge and SpAd in background. Again, has he ever had a proper job?

  • Alasdair  On March 2, 2011 at 11:19 am

    To be honest, I think the issue here then is for MPs collectively to bite the bullet and lobby IPSA to up their staffing allowance. If a) an MP’s workload is increasing (as it is, and will even further when there are less MPs after 2015), and b) it’s desirable for society for MPs to take on more interns, then it makes sense for the staffing allownce to reflect that.

    Another thought would be for IPSA to create a seperate fund that allows all MPs to have the equivalent of a full time intern working for them, paid for out of that IPSA fund. This way you could avoid some of the criticism of ‘MPs increase their own expenses!!’, while still allowing MPs to employ interns without cutting existing staff.

    (Just as an aside, a quick calculation indicates it would cost around £7m to employ the equivalent of an intern on the minimum wage for 48 weeks of the year for each MP. In practice, it’s less, as you presumably wouldn’t bother in the longer recesses – but it’s basically a bit more than 1% of Parliaments ~£500m operating budget).

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