A Pernicious Barrier to Social Mobility- as Advertised on w4mp.org

They’re everywhere. They’re all around us. Unnoticed by most, they hang their heads, working in dingy back rooms all over the country. We all know the system couldn’t operate without them, but we can’t see a way around the problem. They are… the unpaid interns.

Unpaid internships are a fact of modern political life, and indeed in other high-performing, competitive sectors, such as publishing. Evolving out of work experience programmes in school or summer holidays, the system of unpaid internships is now a semi-official part of the political career path. It is generally accepted that being able to walk in off the street and ask for a job, even with a relevant degree, is a model which is an outdated one. But at a time when criticisms are repeatedly raised of the unrepresentative nature of the UK Parliament, this system now represents a high and almost unnoticed barrier to entry to aspiring politicians and political workers.


Having worked myself as an unpaid intern for some months, I can honestly hold my hands up and say that without the generosity of my parents, I would not have been able to survive. This simple fact, that parental support is necessary to be able to complete an internship, effectively excludes the 70-80% of the population whose parents or partners are not well off enough to support their child or partner.

Do not think, however, that this is simply a disgruntled intern’s rant against the system. For this system now represents a major threat to the representative nature of the UK parliament. Like it or not, the old ideal of the ‘gentleman politician’, who would make his name in something else and then get elected, is on the wane. Instead, a large proportion of our MPs have worked for the majority of their working lives within the political and public affairs spheres- for example, David Cameron and George Osborne. The rights and wrongs of this are for another day. However, when the first step to a career in politics (or in related careers, such as public affairs or journalism) is usually an unpaid internship, this provides a huge barrier to entry to anybody who is not from a well-off background. The dangers of an unrepresentative parliament, and of the perception of a political ‘class’ unrepresentative of the population at large have been demonstrated time and again- most recently by the incomprehension of many MPs at public anger over their expenses.


In recent months, however, it has become clearer that not only is the practice of unpaid internships damaging, it’s actually illegal. In December 2009, an employment tribunal ruled that an intern at a film company was entitled to minimum wage law protection, despite the post being advertised as expenses-only. The law differentiates between a worker and a volunteer, and states that whilst the former is entitled to minimum wage protection, the latter is not. The line between the two is nebulous- however, a House of Commons commission concluded that as soon as interns: “are expected to be at work at specific times or to complete specific work, they are no longer volunteers but employees and some employment legislation will apply, such as the minimum wage.”

What surprises me, however, about these cases I’ve cited above, is that they ever came to be noticed at all. As an intern, you are effectively working for a reference, and as such, almost entirely dependent on keeping the goodwill of an employer. If you make trouble, the chances you will get a good reference or another internship diminish rapidly. So there are no doubt dozens or hundreds of cases of interns being mistreated, denied holidays, or working unadvertised hours, without any prospect of them ever coming to anyone’s attention. There’s a very good reason why the main lobbying forum for paid internships is called Interns Anonymous.


So what’s to be done? Many MPs and employers deny that a problem even exists. Recently, Philip Hammond (then Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, now Transport Minister) wrote in an email:

“We are all under intense public pressure to cut the cost of politics and I am trying to reduce my total expense and allowance claims (out of which staff are paid), NOT increase them. I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other Members are obtaining for nothing.”

But the thing is, while he puts his point very crudely, I actually have some sympathy for Hammond’s position. Any increase in MPs’ expense allowances is almost certain to make its way on to an election leaflet; and the idea of paying interns from central party funds is a non-starter (paying for an intern for every Lib Dem MP would cost around £600,000 a year, which is around one-seventh of what the party spent on the 2005 election campaign).

So is there an answer? I believe there is. I believe that a centrally administered pot should be created, for the sole purpose of providing paid, minimum-wage interns to every MP, for perhaps six months of every year, with a presumption that candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds would get these posts, where that were possible. I calculate, very crudely, that this will cost around £2.8 million per year, after the number of constituencies has been reduced. Where is this money to come from? There is enough development money sloshing around to widen access to lower socio-economic groups- and in this case, we know that the money would be going to a direct cause, rather than to a cause which may help widen access. The cost would be relatively low- the consequence, could be the representative UK parliament all parties have worked towards.


If there’s a gravy train, where’s the station?

We are living in the age of austerity- or so we are repeatedly told. And sure enough, one of the first groups of people to come under fire are those back-scratchin’, swill-eatin’, money-wastin’ “faceless bureaucrats”. Yes, scourge of Daily Mail and Middle England (apart from Julian up the road, “yes I know he works for the Department of Something-or-Other, but his wife does a simply delightful casserole”), the public sector is under fire. At the moment, the Telegraph and Mail have taken it upon themselves to trim down the fat cats, to put a bit of slimming drug in the bowl of taxpayer-provided milk. But the question which nobody seems to be asking is, how did they get that way in the first place?

The defence which is usually put forward by aforementioned fat-cats and their trade groups is a very revealing one- take this example, of the Telegraph going after housing association bosses. The obligatory right-of-reply statement, buried halfway down the article, says that the bosses declare that these large salaries are necessary to “attract and retain chief executives of the highest calibre.”

This leads on to two points:
1) Public sector salaries are set in order to keep pace with private sector salaries. Public sector salaries reflect the trend of the last 30 years in this country, where top-level pay has risen dramatically, whereas, in real terms, average pay has stayed at roughly the same level. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini Coefficient, has risen dramatically since 1979- a trend which has been most pronounced under Thatcher, but has also continued under the Labour government.

BUT the more significant point is this:

2) The Public Sector feels the need to keep pace with the private. One of the major trends of the last 20 years has been the blurring of the line between the private and public sectors. Just look at how many of the services around us are now provided by private or semi-private companies- everything from street cleaning, to schools, and housing. One of the logical consequences of this, is that it’s often assumed that “what works in the private sector, must therefore work in the public”. Whilst in things like, say, managing your team, this might be true, this also means that, by this logic, someone who does well in the private sector must also do well in the public. And how do we measure doing well in business? Well, you make a lot of money.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

The logic runs: management techniques that work well in one place, must work well in another. People who are good managers, are successful businessmen. Successful businessmen, are highly paid. Therefore, if we are to get good public sector managers, we have to pay them a lot!

OK, I’ve perhaps been oversimplifying a bit. But what you can see is that this process takes a lot of logical jumps. And it overlooks one MAJOR problem.

The point of the private and public sectors is different.

It’s Business 101 that the purpose of a company is to make money, and deliver profits to its shareholders. By contrast, the point of a taxpayer-funded public sector organisation is obvious- to serve the taxpayers who fund it. The purpose of a public service organisation, is public service.

And this is where the modern logic of public sector management gets it wrong.

The kind of people that should be recruited by the public sector, are people who are not as financially motivated as people who say, become city headhunters or corporate lawyers. Instead, the ethos of public service should be serving the public! In the kind of environment where the altruistic nature of a public sector job is its main selling point, then we can get away from situations where a housing boss can earn £400,000 a year, while most of his staff earn £16,000. But until we see why this situation has come about, then we cannot do anything to make long-term solutions to it.

Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 11:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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