Opinion: Internships – a foot in the door, with a new glass ceiling

Nick Clegg has admitted that his previous pledge to pay interns working for the Party will be broken. And yet, one of the defining ambitions of the Liberal Democrats, found in the Foreword to The Coalition Agreement, is to increase social mobility. Having experience from six unpaid internships, social mobility is one area that I highlight for supporting the Party. Yet it’s in danger of becoming part of Newspeak: for without money to back up the rhetoric, our Party is in danger of yet again offering an empty promise.

Social mobility and paid internships are connected. But I’m concerned with a culture that expects ‘experience’ before employment; a culture that expects you to work for free, afford rent with no income and have zero job security. This is stopping social mobility, not increasing it. Those in training for a new job get paid, so why don’t interns? Well, internships are a fairly new phenomenon. They are currently synonymous with unpaid or ‘voluntary’ work and the term has no official legal definition. The Party must lead by example and ensure that HRMC is given the power and will to ensure unpaid work is a thing of the past. The Low Pay Commission has found that there has been a growth in internships and other work experience opportunities promoted by the Government. The Higher Education Statistics Agency also shows a rise in the proportion of all graduates undertaking voluntary or unpaid work six months after graduation compared to previous years.

This work-for-free culture has led to a race to the bottom. For you may be asking yourselves if internships are so bad, why do people do them? The answer is because if you don’t, someone else will. Internships then are the new glass ceiling: you have your foot in the door, but we are faced with a job market that favours those ALREADY in work with youth unemployment around 22%.

Parliament itself is run by aspiring 20-somethings: the BBC and The NewStatesman have previously estimated that around 450 interns work in Parliament at any one time and that the vast majority are working for free. It is virtually impossible to work out the current number because of the variety of job titles and responsibilities for this ‘grey area’: internship, apprentice, work experience, and volunteer. IPSA describes the role as a ‘volunteer intern’, and any hope of security or health and pension benefits are crushed because there “is not intended to be a legally binding contract between us and may be cancelled at any time”. Yet Parliament would no doubt ground to a halt if all the interns simply went on strike. Of course, they won’t do that. For interns lack proper representation: the Unite Interns Contract covers work diversity rather than pay and the Liberal Democrat intern reps can only really offer CV writing skills and references.

Internships, like the newly branded Liberal Democrat internship scheme, do lead to experience but as soon as this has become meaningful you have to step off the conveyor belt of social mobility; you have to leave and start the process all over again. After the next General Election, our Party will most likely be following up the success of the Pupil Premium with what will become known as the Education Credit as part our continuing commitment to fairness. Social mobility, via paid internships, must be part of this fairness too.


* Alex Smethurst is a Parliamentary Assistant and candidate for Redland ward in Bristol in the local elections in May (written in a personal capacity).

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Joshua Townsley 3rd Jul '12 - 5:20pm

    Great article- couldn’t agree more. Unpaid internships unfairly favour young people with well-off parents and those who live in London and the South East. A young person from a family with a modest income living anywhere else in the country has almost no chance of gaining experience or employment in his/her desired field, if the majority of opportunities are based in the capital and unpaid.

  • Excellent comment piece. People moan that young people are living at home longer, but then expect them to work long hours for free. Which is it?

  • “Well, internships are a fairly new phenomenon. They are currently synonymous with unpaid or ‘voluntary’ work and the term has no official legal definition”

    Not really I worked for free for the party for a long while, then for expenses, then got a paid job. They just weren’t called internships then.

    It’s also noticeable that vastly more people want to intern in Westminster than want to intern in constituency offices

  • jenny barnes 3rd Jul '12 - 8:26pm

    How about leaflet deliverers? Should they get minimum wage? Why or why not? Local and Parish councillors? Branch committees? I don’t really see why not.
    Alternatively – everyone gets a living wage from the state, and then either works and pays tax for more, or volunteers, or chills out. As a society we are rich enough to afford that, if the 1% didn’t take all the pies. Diamond, I’m looking at you and your £30 million pound golden parachute.

  • Simon McGrath 3rd Jul '12 - 9:07pm

    @jenny – if Bob Diamond gets £30m ( which i think highly unlikely) the state will get £19.4m in tax. how is that the “1% taking all the pies” ?

  • How about leaflet deliverers? Should they get minimum wage? Why or why not? Local and Parish councillors? Branch committees? I don’t really see why not.

    Jenny, I think there is a real difference between these examples and internships, and it can be seen if you go to most of the intern ads…. you often see fully formulated job descriptions (including appraisals!) with obvious fixed hours of work and expectations of performance that go far beyond leaflet delivery and other volunteer activity.

    I call a spade a spade – if it looks like work, smells like work and is described as work no weazle words can justify not paying minimum wage for it – I really don’t care if it says intern on the tin – if it was Tescos and they wanted people to work for free we would be jumping up and down with rage ( funny enough that it is what happened when Tesco got found out!) – can anyone explain what the difference is by calling it an intern?

  • Jennie Rigg 3rd Jul '12 - 10:07pm

    If Bob Diamond pays anything LIKE that proportion of his golden parachute in tax, Simon, his accountant will not be doing his job, and you know it.

    As for the substance of the article: in a country in which any jobless person can be forced to work for nothing or virtually nothing, whether as an Olympic Steward of not, why is ANYONE surprised at the proliferation of voluntary positions? And FWIW, like Hywel, I did voluntary work on graduation because I was told it was the only way to get the expected level of experience. This isn;t a new thing, it’s just that people are a lot more brazen about it now.

  • At least one line in this article is wrong: if you have no income (or get expenses against receipts) you ARE eligible for housing benefit. So you don’t have to “afford rent with no income”. So MPs can structure internships to pay travel and lunch against receipts, and people can claim housing benefit. They would need to cover breakfast and dinner, but expenses could cover a substantial cooked lunch.

    Only 10% of people aged 16-24 are unemployed and looking for work, with a further 4% being full time students looking for part time positions. The 10% are mainly non-graduates. The 22% figure comes from excluding students from the denominator (even though students looking for part time work are in the numerator!). The full details can be found in the link provided in the article.

  • Sam Barratt 3rd Jul '12 - 11:29pm


    This is correct I suspect, however, the fact still remains that if you are a young person from outside of London without funds/parental support how are you meant to secure a short/any tenancy in London or nearby from which to claim Housing Benefit in the first place? That is a stumbling block in itself- aside from any of the rights and wrongs of the issue. My personal opinion is interns should be paid NMW/LLW and there should be a ringfenced IPSA budget for interns- so their being paid doesn’t impact individual MPs staffing budgets (maximum number per MP provisos would have to apply etc)

  • Sam – I am not denying that getting a job in London of any sort is easier if your parents live in London, simply that it is always good practice to argue from facts, not fiction. I wouldn’t want people outside London who have friends they could rent a room from in London to think that they could not claim housing benefit when in fact they can. Tim

  • “with obvious fixed hours of work and expectations of performance that go far beyond leaflet delivery and other volunteer activity.”

    Working with volunteers will almost always have expectations – often fixed hours as well. How else do you think people manage to run charity shops with volunteers. Certainly when I’ve had long-term volunteers helping on elections we have agreed what days/hours they will be in. Working with volunteers is not a zero sum game – the organiser has to train them (to some extent) and co-ordinate their work. To do taht you need some structure.

    “if it was Tescos and they wanted people to work for free we would be jumping up and down with rage ( funny enough that it is what happened when Tesco got found out!) ” IIRC about 30% of the people on the Tescos work experience scheme secured work with them – that’s a massive cutting of the odds.

    And I come back to my initial point – if cost is such an issue why is there such a high proportion of people wanting to intern in Westminster compared to the constituency office.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Jul '12 - 11:12am

    It’s clear that we need decent funding for democracy, which would include enough to fund support workers which MPs need. Unfortunately, as we have seen with House of Lords reform, the instant reaction of most of the general public to more being spent on democracy is “No – we don’t want to give more money to politicians”.

    A big contributing factor to this is the anti-democracy campaigns run by the right-wing press. If you speak to ordinary people about MPs, you are likely to get met with howls of rage along the lines “dirty rotten people, making huge amounts out of expenses claims”. The reality is that all the amounts claimed in false expenses from MPs are peanuts compared to what senior people in banking and other big business take in salary, bonuses, and I am sure plenty of very dubious expenses claims. The fuss about MPs expenses was a good distraction – and I think deliberately done for that reason – from anger about the greed of bankers which was welling up at the time. It is actually ludicrous to suppose elected politicians are a significant drain on our economy compared to the thousands of hugely higher paid people working in the “finance industry”. Yet if it is said, “politicians are bad people, we must privatise everything to stop them making all this money”, who makes money instead? It all relies on the innumeracy of the British people, so they can’t tell the difference between millions and billions. So the right-wing press winds them up to get angry about millions spent on democracy rather than billions spent on keeping the bureaucrats of capitalism aka “the finance industry” living in lives of unbelievable luxury.

    It does not help that so much of Westminster is run by posh youngsters. I am sure this contributes much to the impression that MPs are out of touch when in practice so much of their work is done by such an unrepresentative bunch. Sure, there needs to be the voice of youth there, but I think there also needs to be the voice of experience. How about some of these intern posts going to retired former LibDem councillors?

    It seems to me our party should do more to remember the second word of its name and make the case actively for democracy. Our campaigning for a democratic House of Lords is looking a shamble because it’s based on the assumption people are already at the point of thinking democracy is a good thing. We need to go back a further level than that. I am rather tired of the argument “We don’t want an elected House of Lords because it will be full of political hacks”. Er, isn’t the rather obvious answer to that “If you don’t want them, don’t vote for them”? We might then note further (as we dismally failed to make clearer in the AV campaign) that an important aspect of our support for better democracy is that we wish to end the current system where people feel “Have to vote for political hack X in order to stop political hack Y getting in”. Even the miserable little compromise of AV ends that – so why were we unable to get that message across? It seemed to me the AV “Yes” campaign suffered because of too many posh trendies involved in it, the sort of people who win awards for innovative and artistic advertising which didn’t actually do the job of selling the project. I say get rid of these people, and get rid of their kids doing the intern jobs as well. Let’s make our party properly democratic throughout.

  • Helen Dudden 4th Jul '12 - 6:46pm

    I think that if internship is to be regarded as a choice for the future, then to pay a fair salary would promote a better choice of those who could be employed within this sector. With payment you expect a good return with those who work for you. I am not saying that to work voluntarily is not beneficial, but these interns are young and I feel it is only fair to reward them with proper employment.

  • Alongside the NMW there should also be a structured training programme, to ensure that the internship has some meaning, rather like an apprenticeship… otherwise the title intern just means low paid dogsbody. A volunteer should also have some structure to their arrangements and of course be entitled to proper expenses.
    On the topic of ‘putting the LibDem’s own house in order’ we frequently see adverts in LD News for people to serve on this or that committee/ advisory group where there is almost never any reference to expenses being paid. As a consequence the Party is also run by those who live near to London and can afford the fares and the time.

  • Ed Shepherd 7th Jul '12 - 9:45pm

    If it’s work then it should be paid. There is too much unpaid work in our society. To get into professions it is often necessary to do unpaid work and that discriminates against people without substantial family resources.

  • I disagree with the comments that disapprove an internship. They may well be available for graduates from wealthy families central to London, but they are also available for anyone who wants one. I graduated in June, have been working solidly at a supermarket for 2 months now, and start an unpaid internship in London at the end of this month. My christmas job has entitled me to be able to afford to move from the country to London for 3 months, and I can assure I will be a lot more dedicated and driven than an intern who has had this paid for them by a generous source! If nothing has come of it in 3 months then My opinion might change but Its far from impossible for someone who wants Experience to get it! I am SO grateful to the company for taking me on, because if nothing else, it is priceless to my CV!

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Andy Chandler
    @Adam Ah, that's my bad on that. I misread it. Apologise about that. Part blame dyslexic tendencies (always came out as that despite three attempts to get it p...
  • David Symonds
    I find the adversarial politics in Britain to be highly depressing and corrosive. They are enforced and reinforced by the rotted First Past the Post voting syst...
  • Martin Gray
    @Alex Macfie..Whatever the reason, this individual felt the need to assassinate a democratically elected head of government. As Mary has pointed out - those t...
  • Adam
    @ Andy Not "invented" but "inverted"! https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/inverted_snobbery...
  • tom arms
    @ Ian Sanderson: Normally I would agree with your assessment, but in the case of Robert Fico, in the first elections after 1991 he was elected to parliament as ...