From January until the start of April last year, I worked as an unpaid intern in the House of Commons for a Lib Dem MP. Had I been paid the national minimum wage of £5.93 for working thirty-five hours a week on average, I would have received just under £2,700. I worked on his election campaign for a month too. He won.
Far from the cheerful nepotism that characterised most paths to entry, I got in through a placement scheme offered by my University. I can’t be too chippy though. It was only possible to do the placement because my friend’s mother had delayed the sale of her second home in east London. If there had been no house, I wouldn’t have gone.
Still, for a council estate boy from north Dublin I thought I was doing pretty well. Most of the other parliamentary interns lived with their parents. Or if they came from far away, in a flat their parents had bought for them. The girl I worked opposite got the train in every day from Sutton. Another came in from as far afield as Wimbledon. Quite a few had flats in Westminster. It was a pretty international crowd, with many of the interns educated (privately) in Britain but born to wealthy foreign jetsetters. I never did meet Katia Zatulivete, the Russian intern that got Mike Hancock into such hot water, but she’s a good example.
The interns were mostly hardworking, pleasant and personable people. I worked with them on legislation and tabled parliamentary questions. I attended policy meetings and had lunch with them on the terrace. They were a pretty liberal crowd, as you might expect. They weren’t bothered if tuition fees went up though. Several Lib Dem interns described how most ‘proles’ had wasted the opportunity, and people who went to university were upwardly mobile anyway. I was surprised that this view was so widely held, being young people and recent graduates. But it was probably true for them, and this was the lens through which they saw the world.
Placements are usually long-term and unpaid. A lot of MPs make an effort to give work experience to excluded groups in their constituency office, but the same people would never make it in London. They just couldn’t afford it.
The need for short-term placement opportunities in the Commons was pretty clear. Students and recent graduates from further afield don’t always have parents who can buy them a flat but most people could find a floor to sleep on for a couple of weeks.
Imposing a time limit on internships in the Commons might also make British democracy actually democratic. A point often missed is that interns who spend a long time on placements are hoping for a job in the policy unit, or as a paid researcher. Paid researchers are often next in line when an MP stands down, as they know the people and the geography of a constituency. It’s not simply work experience; it’s an informal hiring process.
Alternatively, if time spent on placements were also supplemented by JSA (Jobseeker’s Allowance) to cover transport and food, then this would make it more feasible still. Not just in the Commons, but anywhere.
People justifiably feel irked that the state should subsidise employers in this way, but it already does in so many ways. Most employers have long since farmed out the cost of training and development to the universities and the students who go there. The cost of training the work force has shifted from business to the state, and increasingly to the individual. Supplying JSA to people on placements would go some way to redistributing the burden of that cost. The same can be said of work experience in other places too. It’s not such a great leap to think of work experience as part of jobseeking.
Clegg’s newly-found concern for social mobility is bizarre. I knew a member of his staff rather well. He was an Irishman who lived on Russell Square in a flat his parents had bought for him. He worked incredibly long hours for free. It isn’t simply that he wasn’t paid, but that he didn’t have the time to do very much else. Clegg had a long time in opposition to think about social mobility, and during that time he was asking wealthy parents to subsidise the work being carried out in his office.
The Commons is just one example of how opportunities are hoarded by comparatively few families. I have only been able to get this far by living like a church mouse, being under a lot of favours and impoverishing my mother. But a lot of people don’t have even this level of support. I’d love to say, “look out Mr. Cameron, my elbows are just as sharp” but this would be ridiculous. To breathe that rarefied air, your lungs need to be full with it from your very first breath.