The Independent View: Why Liberal Democrat HQ needs to agree with Nick on unpaid interns

The advertisement for multiple unpaid internships on w4mp.org by Liberal Democrat HQ is unfair, unreasonable and irresponsible. It directly contradicts Nick Clegg’s warning that the practice could lead to widening inequality in the UK. The party should follow the Deputy Prime Minister’s lead and pay its interns a fair wage.

London is an expensive place to live. The Evening Standard recently found that the average rent in the city had broken the £1000 per month barrier. The internships advertised on w4mp.org last 4 months. That means the cost of getting work experience with the Liberal Democrats could well reach £4000, without taking into account food and travel expenses. The £5 per day stipend offered will hardly go very far.

With graduate unemployment at record highs, undertaking internships and work experience is vital for those seeking employment in competitive industries. In a recent report 60% of student job hunters said they have little chance of getting a degree-level job after graduation without further experience. Employers are no longer looking for students to train; they are looking for the finished article. If the opportunity to get this work experience is limited to those who can afford to work for free, a generation of young people will be written off. The Liberal Democrats should not be in the business of slamming the door in the faces of bright, talented young people who want to work in politics. By failing to offer a salary for internship positions, the party is doing just that.

This April Nick Clegg launched the government’s social mobility strategy which aimed to reverse the growth of unpaid internships, which he claimed favour the wealthy and well-connected. Intern Aware agrees with Nick. If only the wealthy can gain access to work experience in political parties, our democracy will be poorer for it. We need people from all backgrounds able to work in politics. The advert posted by Liberal Democrat HQ is exclusive, only open to those with the capacity to pay.

It is farcical for a political party to be recruiting in a way its leader denounces as unfair. If the Liberal Democrats believe in social mobility and a fair deal for young people we are confident they will agree to pay their interns at least the minimum wage.

Gus Baker is Co-director of Intern Aware.

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24 Comments

  • It is hypocritical and it leaves Clegg open to yet another kicking at DPMQ’s. I am far from a Clegg fan but do often feel sorry for him. He’s spot on about internships but was badly advised when it was announced and has been made to look a fool by this….

  • George Morris 1st Jun '11 - 5:14pm

    I think that the party has said it has plans to introduce paid internships relatively soon, but not this year.

  • It seems to me that Lib Dem HQ are trying to undermine Nick. Not sure what their game is but its sinister. I suggest everyone writes to Nick and asks him to intervene on this matter. I have done so.

  • Internships should be banned, stopped for breaching minimum wage laws. If it looks like a duck, quacks like duck, then it is a duck. The same test should apply to internships; if looks like a job, it should be treated as a job. The Lib Dems policy on tuition fees shows that you are pretty clueless when it comes to the live of us ordinary folk. Well how could a party of privilege public school boys understand the difficulties of trying to start a career without those advantages.

    I was a State school student at one of the top Universities, with a mainly private school intake. I saw a few of the Private school student’s CVs and was amazed at the sort of positions they had held. Mine was full of Mcjobs to pay for Uni, and charity work. Their CVs had lots of high level positions, and work experience at prestigious firms. I asked how they managed this, the answer was always. Well my dad knows the chairman of the company, my Uncle play gold with, ect and so on. This is the invisible barrier that large numbers of students face, when it comes to starting a career. They don’t have access to this network, to those contacts.

    Internships are simply the final straw, most graduates can’t afford to work for nothing. Effectively, most graduates are locked out of jobs in the media and politics. Only a public school elite can intern at parliament, or on national newspapers. Locking the majority out of our democracy, or should I say your democracy. I’m an engineering graduate, an industry mainly free of blight of internships, also free of jobs. Thanks to the work of the political classes, and I have to say, I see little difference between you. In some ways it is funny, I have a useful skill, I can design things. You lot have no useful skills, and I’m the one unemployed.

  • At least the party could try and find a way to offer these interns free (cheap?) accommodation in London. Surely, it ought to be possible – perhaps by finding party members willing to take somebody in for a few weeks?

    But on the whole, I agree with Nick on this: the practice is unfair because it essentially selects candidates by the wealth (and possibly connections) of their families, rather than by talent. It ought to stop. In fact, it should have stopped at the latest a few weeks before Nick Clegg made his announcement.

  • The internship is advertised online visible to all youngsters equally. A salary would be better, but the fact is that an internship like this won’t be got by “having the right mates” or “daddy” having the right connections. Clegg was criticising esoteric internships that one could get by such methods.

  • For as long as I’ve known the party has had volunteer staff working at Cowley Street and all political parties rely to a substantial degree of volunteer help for their day to day operation. They are, to that extent, considerably different from businesses.

  • “Clegg was criticising esoteric internships that one could get by such methods.”

    He also rightly criticised the unpaid element. You may feel these are open to all, but they simply are not. Poorer students and new graduates will not have the resources to intern for free unless it is provided for them. Food and accomodation alone makes this a rich kids game.

    I grew up in a council house with hard working parents a stone’s throw from London. They struggled to get money for school trips etc. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to help fund an opportunity such as this, and it would have crucified them to not be able to provide that support. The selection criteria here is not only ability and aptitude, but the ability to support oneself in the most expensive city in our country. As they are short term, and no doubt require long hours, working a second job to self support is probably not an option.

    This will just confirm to some (and be used by opponents to show) that the Lib Dems, like their millionaire cabinet collegues are interested in “social mobility” only as a soundbite. I have nothing against people from wealthy backgrounds being accepted, just the exclusion of those who cannot afford the opportunity. Make no mistake, an internship like this is a massive step up in certain circles. Barriers should only exist because of ability, Liberals are meant to enable individuals and not shut some out.

    Clegg is right, the party is wrong to use this most cruel of selection criteria, he should get a grip of the party and end it now.

  • Steve – so where does that leave the other use of volunteers by the party?

    If I live in a constituency with a Lib Dem MP I could get loads of experience by turning up at the constituency office and offering to help. The same if there was a Parliamentary by-election nearby to me (how I learnt about things). Both of which would be long hours and unpaid.

    What is the difference between that and these schemes – except that these are structured, transparent and arranged in a way that helps ensure that people do something which develops their skills more than standing over a Riso for 18 hours a day?

  • I don’t really understand the claim that you can’t be an unpaid intern if your parents don’t live in London. So long as your internship meets a few basic criteria, you are eligible for housing benefit as an intern. A very good literacy charity in Peckham (Springboard – google it) structures its internships like this.

    You need some money to commute and eat, so £5 a day is particularly measly. But if Cowley St offered travel expenses (up to zone 6), and £5 a day for lunch that would be pretty close to covering all expenses, given that you can claim housing benefit. What would the loss be over a three month internship? The cost of breakfast and dinner? Work in McDonalds wherever you live for a month before you start, and earn a little money to cover some Weetabix for breakfast and pasta for dinner.

    What next, the claim that all students should get the minimum wage, because otherwise how can we all do a PhD?

  • @Hywel
    The difference is that these schemes open doors for future employment within politics / business at high levels. They are limited in number and generally based in central London. Just look at the current cabinet and see where they interned… Helping an MP and volunteering locally is I’m afraid totally different. If this were not the case why did Clegg raise it as such an issue ?????

    The Lib Dems have had enough bad press linked to saying one thing and doing another, this will just give the press / Labour / Tory Right (in fact even Cameron had a pop on this issue so perhaps include Tory Ministers) another open goal.

  • @tim leunig
    Housing benefit…

    Take a moment to think about the political ramifications of that idea. At a time where we are being told we are all in it together for the national good a political party structures it internships so that the tax payer picks up the bill.

    At a time where we are being told too much is being paid out in housing benefit, and nurses and teachers may see theirs cut.

    Not top of the list for winning back votes methinks.

  • What I find interesting is the party that normally has some fine principles is even having a discussion about this. Clegg needs to stamp on this right now or his moral authority over his own party will be shot to pieces.

  • Firstly, given the big song and dance Clegg has made about interns, then yes the party should stop advertising for interns based in London now.

    But we do have to differentiate between working in London and working in one of the constituency / regional / State party offices. If someone voluntarily comes to the Party and says “I’m studying in Edinburgh and want to do a summer volunteering in Clifton Terrace” are we really in a position to turn them away? Likewise, if someone comes to my Council group and says “I’ll do PR work for you for nothing” then are we really going to say “no” – we certainly aren’t in a position to pay them.

    I also think the point Clegg was trying to make was that often these go to sons/daughters/friends of people in influence. Advertising at least removes this possibility.

  • Unpaid Internships is just another form of getting cheap labour in my view. It is immoral and not one bit realistic.

    With regard to Housing Benefit – someone doing a 3 month internship would not qualify for this as you may only get it if this is your only home. In any case it takes 13 weeks to process a HB claim, by which time the internship is over.

    Surely the suggestion that HB is used as a “backdoor” form of subsistence allowance is against our “Social Mobility” policy anyway?

    If HQ insists on this then, at the very least, they should be offering a 3 month season travel ticket for the tube or the buses. How about LD HQ sourcing and funding a small group of flats or bed-sits for the sole use of interns – that would make more sense, preferably close to HQ. This would keep costs down and the interns would have something in common with each other and would not feel isolated in London as so many young folk are. Just a few thoughts………………..

  • jenny barnes 2nd Jun '11 - 9:35am

    Call me strange, but social mobility seems to me to be a way for rich people to claim that because some people can move up, those that don’t are lazy/thick/undeserving. Wouldn’t it be better for all jobs to pay a decent living wage?
    Or is that too radical?

  • I agree in principle with the idea of this – but we need a lot more clarity about how it is going to work in practice and how far down the food chain it goes.

    There clearly is a problem with internships in MPs Westminister offices only being available to those in London with the funds to take them up – and, in those circumstances where there is a substantial budget for salaries (£100,000 per MP, I recall), there isn’t really any excuse for not paying them at least the minimum wage.

    Outside MPs offices, though, there is a lot of fear and concern about what impact the promise to “pay interns” means for ordinary volunteers. The key question Intern Aware have failed to answer is: outside the context of MPs offices, what’s the core difference between an intern and a structured volunteership?

    There are a great many charities and voluntary organisations – who have a small central core of paid staff and a large number of unpaid volunteers – who “package” up their constant demands for volunteers into “job roles”, which are advertised on websites such as http://www.do-it.org.uk. A quick search of a part of London throws up the following such roles: “Classroom Support Volunteers”, “Assistant Scout Leader”, “Fundraiser”, “Admin Volunteer”, “Shop Assistant”, etc. These often have defined roles, a minimum commitment of time, may or may not carry expenses – and often will be useful to someone who wishes to gain experience for future employment

    Without these volunteers, these jobs simply would not get done.

    Just like a large charity – the Lib Dems are a voluntary organisation which has a a small central core of staff and a large number of volunteers (of which we always need more). And with such a large number of volunteers to manage, sometimes these volunteer organisations are “packaged” into job roles – such as “media coordinator”, “campaigns volunteers”, “canvassing organiser”, etc – and, in order to communicate what those voluntary roles entail, brief details are given of how much time volunteers need to commit and whether any expenses are paid. And yes, sometimes these roles are attractive to young people who want to gain experience for the workplace.

    And equally, without these volunteers, these jobs simply would not get done.

    So what’s the difference?

  • Should my church be forced to pay me because I am on the creche rota? It is a regular commitment – I volunteer about 9 times a year, for 2 hours a time. What about my teachers who ran after school clubs, or helped with sports clubs? Or my sunday school teachers who ran summer holiday camps when I was a kid? The volunteers at my local theatre, who tell you where to go?

    Steve – I was not advocating that HB should be extended to interns, just pointing out that it already was available, and claimed by many.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Jun '11 - 11:15am

    The Liberal Democrats are a party which relies largely on volunteer labour. All the while the people of this country reject the idea of funding political parties in a way that enables them to develop policies and promote them without funding strings attached, this will happen.

    The Liberal Democrats are not a big corporation with large amounts of funds. The alternative to unpaid volunteers is not paid volunteers, it’s no volunteers. There are not execs in the LibDems earning millions through being execs in the LibDems whose millions could very easily be diverted into paying decent salaries to those working at a lower level. So it is not quote the equivalent to the argument against inters in other sectors.

    However, it is up to us as a democratic party to resist the way working as an unpaid intern in Westminster is becoming the main stepping stone to a national political career. It’s easy – just don’t select such people as your PPC. When selecting PPCs, or for that matter, party leaders, be a bit more critical – don’t be so taken in by the glibness that comes from having been inducted into the charmed circle at an early age.

    I find it so weird that people moan about MPs being out-of-touch, of being some separate class of alien people who have little knowledge of ordinary life, when we live in a DEMOCRACY. It is US who choose who are to be our MPs. If we don’t like the sort of people we end up with, we should choose another sort. It would help, of course, if we had an electoral system which didn’t force our hands to vote in particular ways, but the British people, bless them, have just voted to reject what would have been the first step in giving them more direct control over who are their MPs. As I said elsewhere, that’s democracy – the people speak, and you may not like how they speak, but you have to accept it. But being a democrat does not mean you can’t think them bloody fools for what they say, and tellnig them so when you have the opportunity.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jun '11 - 10:05am

    William Summers

    The Lib Dems are not a junior football club or a jumble sale, they are a professional political party with an income measured in millions.

    Yes, and I have sat on constituency executive committees and the like for decades, where so much effort goes into handling what are really tiny amounts of money. That IS the reality of our party – we are NOT an organisation which has many thousands of pounds to spend in the way big corporations do. Most members of the electorate don’t see it that way, they do seem to think we must all run from big well appointed offices. I have often had conversations on the doorstep or telephone on this basis – people just don’t get the fact that most local parties run on a yearly budget well under what a single minimum waged person would earn.

    I interned myself in Parliament, and also later recruited interns as a paid researcher. My experience is that the vast majority of applicants are from fairly privileged backgrounds and know how to use the system to their advantage. Westminster is full of Oxbridge interns going through the motions to add ‘worked for an MP’ to their already impressive CVs.

    We as a party need to make absolutely sure we are not like that. I was recently taken to task by someone high-up in our party for my claim that there is a lot of class prejudice in it and that it is biased in favour of people with a glib public school background. Well, unless our party’s interns are different from what you describe as the norm, I am right there on this.

    Paying a minimum wage would not change the world, but it would at least open up the opportunity to many more people who would otherwise be unlikely to be able to afford it.

    Yes I agree, fully. I’m not opposing you on this. But I am asking “How is this to be paid for?”. It;s like people who moan about the cuts, student fees etc – fine, moan, but if you really want it to be different TELL US how you would pay for it.

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