Friday, 20 March 2009

And it's not just about qualifications...

Seeing as the post on getting more young people into university has generated so much debate, here's another idea I've been germinating for some time.

When I was first elected I hadn't reckoned on becoming an employer too, of a small team of staff and the occasional slave labour (aka interns). I started off with very good intentions. I wanted to take on bright kids from poorer backgrounds who had made it to uni against the odds; who hadn't been to private school or Oxbridge or had family connections in the media or politics; who didn't have anyone to pull strings for them. People who just needed someone to give them a break.

But actually, it didn't turn out to be that easy. If such people were out there, I found it hard to find them. I ended up taking on a succession of interns who had been to public school, or were from Surrey, or were called Toby, or played classical instruments... (revealing my prejudices here, I know). Who were, by and large, very good.

So where were the kind of kids I was looking for? Partly it goes back to the issue we were discussing before; such kids are far less likely to go to university, and so there simply aren't as many of them around. And even if they do pretty well academically, once they get out into the 'real world' their horizons are limited by a whole range of factors: who they know; what their family expects; what they see as achievable ambitions. And sometimes by a desire not to become the type of person they met at uni (ref. 'Common People' and 'Misshapes' and other works of genius by Jarvis Cocker).

So how do we get round this? One of the obstacles in their way is that these days it's almost not enough to have a degree. Most of the applicants who send CVs my way now have Masters degrees. They've done gap years, travelling the world and working in orphanages in Africa and on environmental projects in Central America. They've had 'interesting' summer jobs, in the media or in politics or at NGOs. (A definite plus sign in my book is having worked at a restaurant called something like 'the Golden Egg' or in the kitchen at Littlewoods or in a packing-factory, all of which I did as a teenager. And by the way, working as an unpaid researcher for George Osborne or campaigning for the Tory candidate in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election... call me fussy, but that's a definite no. True stories, those.)

And then of course, there's the issue of money. I know most students leave university with debts these days, but it's amazing how many can scrape together the funds to work as unpaid interns for 6 months, adding valuable experience to their CV. Of course it helps if they can still live at home, and have parents who are willing to support them. But what about those who can't do this? The Government - by which I mean David Lammy at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and Liam Byrne at the Cabinet Office with his Social Mobility White Paper, and Alan Milburn who has been charged with looking at fair access to the professions - are looking at ways to support young people break through this glass ceiling. And it's not enough simply to make these opportunities available - we need actively to seek out young people who might benefit, but who would never think of applying.

I think we in Parliament should set an example, with our own internship scheme and bursaries. How about adding 10p onto the price of every pint of beer or glass of wine sold in the Strangers and all the other Palace of Westminster bars, to pay for it?


Steven_L said...

I'm not convinced 10p a pint in the House bars would do it? Would it? Have you lot got a drink problem or something?

How about minimum prices on MP's drinks to pay for interns?

John Popham said...

Not sure if you can sell your 10p on a pint idea to the other members of the Westminster village, but I think the bursaries for internships proposal is a definite winner. MPs are being drawn from an increasingly narrow cohort, and, in particular from people who have no experience outside politics. I believe it is very important to break that cycle.

Jim Baxter said...

Young people? That's a bit ageist isn't it? How about folk in their fifties who might 'need a career change' i.e. might find themselves out of work. Me, for example. Or am I on the scrapheap, had my chance, etc.?

Tom said...

I can think at least two (Labour) MPs who already pay their interns - minimum wage only, as far as I know, but it's a start. Maybe the three of you could get together to work on some sort of proper scheme/proposal to take to the House authorities? A specialized 'intern allowance' is about the only possibility I can think of off-hand; any more centralized scheme could cause disputes regarding who gets which intern.

Chris Hutt said...

"we need actively to seek out young people who might benefit"

The problem with this is that you will be actively seeking people who match your notion of what a deserving case looks and sounds like. This will favour the same class of operators who always dominate the scene because they are nothing if not adaptable.

When I was squatting in the East End in the 1970s a surprising number of my neighbours were Oxbridge graduates building up their urban working class credentials to further their careers in left-wing politics. A fair few of them made it big in the Labour Party and its shoal of parasitic quangos.

The sharp-elbowed operators of this world will always come to dominate our leading political, economic and social institutions. If you want to empower ordinary people then you need to take power and influence away from these institiutions and return it to ordinary people.

Anonymous said...

1. Why do entrants to your scheme need even a degree let alone need to be able to buy an MA?

Some of the best - at least from the public's point of view - of the Labour party don't have degrees. Prescott, Skinner and Alan Johnson are all examples of - in one way or another - excellent politicians who don't have degrees.

Is the Labour movement no longer interested in these kind of people?

2. These schemes are an example of what Peter Oborne (a clever right winger?) was on about in 'The Triumph of the Political Class' where politics is an increasingly specialised profession only open to Oxbridge grads who can thereafter pursue an odd kind of non-career in Westminster as wonks before being handed a safe seat and a place in cabinet.

Wouldn't you be better of telling aspiring politicos to become teachers, social workers, public sector workers, bankers, retail managers etc. so they have some experience of something before they start making laws and telling us how to live our lives?

3. It's only soppy little plonkers called Toby that are mapping out a parliamentary political career for themselves in their early 20s.

The kind of people you're looking for as interns are far more likely to be doing Climate Camp, working on issues like Gaza or organising themselves to make trouble at the G20.

At this stage they're unlikely to have much time or belief in Parliamentary politics.

They may have by the time they're in their 30s but it's too late by then. The Tobies will all have their feet under the table and wont be letting in the oiks will they?

Kerry said...

Actually, if the intern scheme was funded by 10p a pint, the bulk of the income would probably come from current researchers and interns, unless we exempted the Sports and Social Club!

I think the key is to start in schools, with MPs offering work experience or summer placements. I've had a few, including some which don't fit the typical 'Toby' profile. (I do hope Toby isn't reading this - he wasn't actually particularly posh). Doesn't have to be kids who want to go into politics, it's still a good experience for them.

bevanite said...

Couldn't internships be classed as apprenticeships and funded through Labour's scheme?

Just a thought. No underlying motive.

Old Holborn said...

If you go into the bogs at the Prince of Wales in the Gloucester road, the loo roll is signposted with "Sociology Degrees".

And they ain't wrong either.

Still, it only costs £21K to educate someone in basket weaving, they leave Uni with £30K and now can't get a job because everyone else has a degree in basket weaving.

This is the road to slavery and bonded labour

The Grim Reaper said...

How often do you drink at the Commons bars, Kerry? Simply curious.

Kerry said...

Once in a blue moon. That's why it's such a clever idea! ;}

Punchie said...

Would have to be quite generous bursaries to cover interns' accommodation in London.

I would've thought a lot of people who want to work in politics just don't have the resources to cover rent, even if food and travel was provided.

Kerry said...

The HoC already covers interns' expenses - travel and subsistence - but yes, you're right, would have to pay a decent amount for them to afford to live in London (which leads us onto debate about minimum wage and whether there should be a London weighting. It's one of the reasons child poverty is so much more entrenched in London than elsewhere - housing costs are so much higher that many people aren't able to make being in work stack up financially).

Punchie said...

I think that's part of the problem though: all the opportunities, not just in politics but in the media and a lot of other high profile jobs, are based in or around London.

I was offered an internship with BBC News and Current Affairs (as a result of some undergrad student journalism) while reading for a masters degree, but it was based in London and I was up in Durham at the time.

Now I suppose I could have applied for some interning with regional BBC - but that's not going to look as good on a CV is it?

We won't raise aspiration for children in deprived areas until we spread opportunities further than the Watford Gap.

bevanite said...

Ken Livingstone set up a London Living Wage which is paid to all employees of London govt. as a minimum- cleaners, security etc. Think it's about 7 quid an hour, should definitely be trialled throughout the capital, cost of rent and food etc is so much more. Mind you, if you travel by bus in bristol, you'd save a small fortune coming to London.
Think this idea of subsidizing internships really could take off, we want the best of all classes in politics not only those who can afford to get experience. Tabled question perhaps for after recess Kerry?!