Opinion: No political party should accept internships

Nick Clegg has launched a national internship scheme to increase social mobility, end inbuilt disadvantage and conform with the minimum wage.

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has been criticised this week by a leading national campaign, Graduate Fog, for recruiting unpaid interns.

The climate is changing – and yet seemingly not in our own house. I (and presumably some of the Lib Dem Voice readership) have applied for Lib Dem internships, and there seems to be no concerted effort to clean up our party in this regard. I am white and middle-class and was only able to apply for internships over the past six months due to the financial circumstances of my partner. I applied because I saw no alternative between unpaid jobs and jobs calling for many years of experience that I couldn’t offer. Sutton Lib Dems stood out in my job hunt as their recently advertised internship was properly time-limited work experience for the inexperienced. Most of the rest are real jobs hiding under the term ‘internship’.

I understand the financial pressures on the party are great. But offering the minimum wage for a good day’s work is one of the ways to make this society fairer. Gaining experience is part of a job; giving time and skills at an already competent level, as many interns do, is part of a job. It’s disingenuous to pretend that ‘experience gained’ can act as the sole reward of an internship. Reading some internship ads, they are clearly descriptions of full jobs with the salary left off. We and our party interns are being ‘enslaved by the conformity’ which obtains across both the Labour and Conservative parties, and across the country.

Present laws on internships are unclear, as guidelines from the DirectGov website show:

Internships are often positions requiring a higher level of qualification than other forms of work experience, where you gain experience for a professional career. However, the term ‘intern’ has no legal status. If you are an intern you will be treated in the same way as someone doing work experience for national minimum wage (NMW) purposes.

Entitlement to the NMW does not depend on your job title. For example you are not prevented from qualifying for the NMW by:

  • being called a work experience trainee, an unpaid intern or a volunteer
  • having your role in the business described as a placement or internship, or unpaid work

If you are entitled to the NMW, you cannot give up your entitlement even if you agree with your employer to be paid a wage below the NMW.

You will be a voluntary worker if you receive only limited and specific benefits such as reasonable travel or lunch expenses and work for:

  • a charity
  • a voluntary organisation
  • an associated fund raising body
  • a statutory body

In general, you are a volunteer if:

  • you take on work for a particular organisation with no entitlement to financial reward or benefit, except out-of-pocket expenses
  • you do not have to turn up for work if you don’t want to (even if people expect you to or you generally work to a regular pattern)

This last about not turning up to work if you don’t want to may be news to Lib Dem interns!

Employers are being successfully sued for fair wages by former interns. High profile campaigns like Intern Aware and Graduate Fog are naming and shaming governmental and public bodies, private firms and individuals who use unpaid interns. We must not be left behind in this changing climate. Let’s use our opportunity in government to overhaul employment law that allows for unfair working practices to flourish, and work towards achieving equality in work. We can start by changing the Party’s own working practices to become a fairer employer and a high-profile example, and campaign to close the national internship loophole.

Rebecca Taylor is a Lib Dem activist who stood for local election in 2010

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Where do you draw the line between a volunteer helper and an intern.

    If I am running a campaign with a volunteer and I arrange for them to come in on Monday and Wednesday mornings then I will have arranged any work programme around that. If they then don’t turn up I’m much less likely to rely on them in the future.

    What’s the difference between that and an intern not turning up.

    The party relies on “volunteer” stewards to help run conference (they don’t get NMW but they do get accomodation etc AIUI). There is I suspect an expectation that they will be available at the time and place agreed.

    “High profile campaigns like Intern Aware and Graduate Fog are naming and shaming governmental and public bodies, private firms and individuals who use unpaid interns.”

    There is one important group missing from that – voluntary organisations – of which that party is one.

  • Daniel Henry 29th Oct '11 - 3:05pm

    @ Hwyel
    I guess a volunteer is doing it purely for the cause while the intern is trying to gain experience. Most interns are doing work they wouldn’t otherwise do in the hope that it leads to a career. I think that what are currently considered intern positions should be offered minimum wage.

    Or perhaps there’s another option for companies.
    If the companies in question had a clear structure and could demonstrate to regulators that they were training certain skills and would give the “intern” some kind of qualifications that would assist them in finding a job they could market it as a “training course” instead. Thoughts?

  • This is a problem that needs addressing. I do think that of all under-represented groups, the poor are the ones who get the least help, and internships are another way in which they are disadvantaged and entrenched, generational privilege is maintained.

  • Personally, I’m generally not for mandatory paid internships – in politics, I think they could quite possibly create perverse consequences: we are not a well resourced or monied party. We would, in the case of having to pay interns the national minimum wage, not run nearly as many. I hope we can all take this as fact. Our funds are precious and already spoken for.

    Other political parties (I can think of a couple) with more reliable streams of income from interest groups would be more able to provide internships – not only would they be able to offer more internships, they would have a monopoly on offering politically interested job-market entrants experience. Do we want Labour and the Tories to monopolise political experience for young people in the UK?

    The fact that some internships are like jobs (the ones I’ve done certainly were) is not necessarily a bad thing. It means you have experience doing a job in politics. Shouldn’t be sniffed at. I’ve done internships, for organisations that would never have found the money to take on another member of staff, and they’ve left me in a position from which I can begin applying for paid work at a low level in politics.

    Finally, there are already many NMW discrepancies. I won’t qualify for the full amount until April, when I turn 21. Before I turned 18, I earned even less. I’ve worked 18 hour days with the TA for daily rates, working out at about £2 per hour. An apprentice is paid an NMW of £2.60 in the first year of their apprenticeship – a potentially more functional proposition might be to include Interns within that scheme, but I certainly disagree with insisting on the national minimum wage.

    Many internships, especially in politics, would simply disappear, and we could all live with the comfort that the small proportion of opportunities that are left are salaried, as thousands more people are left with nothing in the way of experience.

    (Unpaid intern, Liberal Democrats, 2010)
    (Unpaid intern, Yes to Fairer Votes, 2011)

  • “I guess a volunteer is doing it purely for the cause while the intern is trying to gain experience.”

    But interns for political parties are very very likely to be doing it for both. Mind you in my day the way you interned was to turn up to a by-election and stay there!

  • “But if you are turning up day after day for a period of time, in office hours, for a protracted role that relies on you being there, and would in any situation be called a ‘job’,”

    I have done just that as a volunteer at by-elections (well office hours+) as have many people within the party. There are probably volunteers who have have been responsible for opening the office in the morning!

    “I think turning up to a by-election and staying there is called volunteering…!” Not on the definition you are putting forward. It is possible to draw those comparisions in a business where everyone (else) is a paid employee is there is something to be comparable with. Where you have voluntary organisations that analogy doesn’t hold.

    To extend the comparison. My cricket club has a volunteer groundsman who does on the work on the pitches. there is a pretty clear expectation on him to turn up and do the work during the week. Other clubs pay people to do some or all of the work that he does. Should he be treated as an intern – and if not under what circumstances would he be.

  • Henry McLaughlin 30th Oct '11 - 8:22am

    This isn’t an issue just since the economic crash. I did unpaid voluntary internships while at uni. It would have been unreasonable to ask for pay as I didn’t have enough skills and the charities (who had much greater resources than the Lib Dems) could not have justified it to their supporters. I was the main beneficiary as its how I got graduate employment.

    When I worked for the Lib Dems I had lots of part time volunteers. Some people called them interns but I didn’t and didn’t give them job descriptions to stay on the right side of the law. They definitely understood they could not turn up and there wouldn’t be consequences. However it was during office hours as otherwise the office would have been closed. We didn’t have the funds to pay them minimum wage.

    If a local party is advertising full time unpaid internships then you can almost certainly negotiate fewer hours if you also have paid work. but its unlikely they could afford pay you full time minimum wage unless they’ve hired organisers before.

  • @Mike Bird

    Go to http://graduatefog.co.uk/2011/1675/jeremy-hunt-mp-internship/

    Read Hunt’s job description for interns

    In any other walk of life that would be a three month contract job, with an obvious intention that it’s a full time role for those three months

    It’s getting people to work for nothing but no doubt in Surrey he will have lots of takers.

    It’s simple – it might be difficult but no decent thinking party should have anything to do with it, and I get a queasy feeling hearing an argument that unpaid employment is ok because ‘our funds are precious and already spoken for”.

  • What Rebecca seems to miss is that a number of our researchers and organisers are still getting barely more than the nat. minimum wage, so paying interns won’t work. If I hadn’t done an internship in Parliament (expenses only) 5 years ago I wouldn’t be where I am today. Yes, it was hard to manage financially, but it set me apart from others when applying for jobs and showed I was committed. I understand where Rebecca is coming from, I’m from a working class background and now out-earn both my parents put together even though I only work part-time!
    Paying interns changes the entire nature of the game, it might work in business but for our party it just won’t. If we can’t even afford comms staff to push the great work we’re doing in government we definitely shouldn’t be paying people to gain experience so they can take that and go and work for a charity or public affairs agency having no further thought for the Lib Dems (which incidentally is what most of my fellow interns and researchers did).

  • @Rebecca: Labour and the Tories would not be more ‘willing’ to act fairly, they would simply be the only ones able to do so. They have interest groups that are happy to fund them.

    I do not believe it is ‘fair’ to reject all opportunity for young people to gain experience in politics without pay. It would mean vastly less of it was on offer. If anyone has a a few hundred thousand pounds (probably a couple of million) to offer the party, specifically earmarked for the pay of interns, then I would love to hear about it. Until then, all we would be doing by removing internships from the party is withdrawing the opportunity that we’re meant to be promoting as Liberal Democrats.

    I will admit, the system you’re proposing would ensure equality of opportunity in the Liberal democrats, it might even achieve equality of outcome – there would be no opportunities, equally distributed to all.

    I don’t believe I was taken advantage of in any way. I was able to prove myself, and it has advantaged me immensely. I didn’t get my internships through contacts, because I didn’t have any.

  • Stephen Donnelly 30th Oct '11 - 4:06pm

    @Daniel Henry

    “If the companies in question had a clear structure and could demonstrate to regulators that they were training certain skills and would give the “intern” some kind of qualifications that would assist them in finding a job they could market it as a “training course”.

    Small and Medium sized companies cannot afford to spend time convincing ‘regulators” that they have sufficiently ‘clear structures’ . This is the cascade of government intervention that already ties companies in knots.

  • Go to http://graduatefog.co.uk/2011/1675/jeremy-hunt-mp-internship/

    Read the internship ad

    Its getting free labour plain and simple. The same is happening with politicians of all parties; Clegg is absolutely right and please, lets have more principle and less ‘ Our funds are precious and already spoken for’ type of argument. It might hurt the party but it has some way to get student’s trust back – perhaps being principled on this might help?

  • @balbs – much of my argument is on principle, which you’ve missed out. I’ve been quite clear that I think it offers more to young people to be able to get experience, even if unpaid, than it does not to offer them anything at all (the only alternative).

    I find it ironic that you talk about supporting something on principle and then say it’s a way to ‘get student trust back’ – is that not simply a campaigning ploy? We tried to buy students off before, I think. Didn’t work out that well, as I recall.

    Internships exist, simply put, because it is all but impossible to walk into paid work in politics. Without unpaid internships, far less people will have the baseline of experience with which to look for paid work. If you make internships paid, the Liberal Democrats will not offer them, or at least will offer only a fraction of the number we did previously. It’s not much more complicated than that to me.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Oct '11 - 7:39pm

    Let me put two scenarios (as they say).

    (1) I am contacted by a recent graduate offering to do some part-time work for me as a research assistant “until I get a job” in the knowledge that volunteering/interning for a peer at Westminster might help get the kind of job he wants to do. I gratefully accept the offer. Should that be banned? If so how can you distinguish between such an arrangement and an offer to volunteer to do such work for me by someone who wants to do it as a volunteer) like any other job for the party) and is too old to want a “proper job” (I have such an arrangement at the moment with someone doing a particular job for me).

    (2) I want to find a volunteer to help me with certain aspects of my work as a LD working peer. Because of the nature of the work I really don’t want someone with little or no political experience, I want someone with a lot of knowledge and experience of the party (and someone who is in line with the things I am involved in and interested in and on a par politically with me). If you ban interns how do you allow for such an arrangement? Again how do you differentiate between this and any other volunteer roles for the party?

    These are all examples which are “live” at the moment. (And if you know of anyone who might fit (2) tell them to phone me or email with a phone number!)

    Tony Greaves

  • Ed Shepherd 1st Nov '11 - 10:07am

    Unpaid internships whether at political parties or companies are just another way in which the wealthy promote the interets of their children and the less well-off children get disadvantaged. This entrenches privilege and prevents social mobility.

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