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Laurie Penny: Internship auctions and a lost generation

To criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, the response is, “That’s life.”

On the bus this morning, a young father was distributing pocket money to his three small children. The eldest was kicking the back of my chair in bone-jarringly rhythmic anticipation of being taken to town for a day's shopping, but when he received his small handout, the kicking stopped.

"I'm not going to spend my £3, Dad," announced the boy, "I'm going to save it, and then I’m going to save all my pocket money, and then I can go to university and get a good job." This may, of course, have been the sort of cunning ploy to wheedle extra cash out of a parent that anyone who was ever a smart-arse seven-year-old will recognise.

It speaks volumes about the state of social equality, though, that while this primary school pupil from inner London was contemplating forfeiting an entire childhood's worth of treats to afford a chance at higher education and fulfilling work, wealthy Oxford graduates were taking up prestigious internships that they had purchased at a lavish charity auction held at the university last month.

Students who attended the opulent Oxford Red Dress Couture Ball, tickets for which were priced at up to £300 (though most cost £40), were able to bid thousands of pounds for coveted professional placements with law firms and fashion designers.

A mini-pupillage with the barrister Neil Kitchener QC was under the hammer, as were designer gowns, hotel breaks and other goodies available only to the extremely well-off. Sam Frieman, co-organiser of the auction, told the Cherwell that "you can only come to the auction if you have paid for a ticket. In response to the criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, I would say, 'That's life.' "

Internships like these are now prerequisites for many jobs, and most interns work extremely hard to obtain and finance work placements. "As someone from a low-income, East Midlands background, this auction is another reminder that I'm at a disadvantage because I can't afford an internship,” said a recent Oxford graduate, Kate Gresswell, 21.

Relative inequality within the Oxbridge system is hardly the pressing issue of our times, but if even the cleverest Oxford graduates are finding that money matters more than merit something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with our employment equations.

The internship system is already expensive enough to exclude all but the richest and most fortunate young people from popular jobs.

I could pretend, for example, that it's my winning smile and genius that have enabled me to find work as a journalist -- but a year's unpaid interning, during which I survived on a small inheritance from a dead relative, had just as much to do with it.

Today, any graduate or school-leaver without the means to support themselves in London while working for free can forget about a career in journalism, politics, the arts, finance, the legal profession or any of a number of other sectors whose business models are now based around a lower tier of unpaid labour.

After the relative levelling of university, class reasserts itself with whiplash force as graduates from low-income backgrounds find the doors of opportunity slammed in their face.

Last week, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development called for employers to be obliged legally to pay interns a minimum wage of £2.50 an hour, but such a step is unlikely to be taken by the coalition, which has already made it breathtakingly clear that preventing young people from falling through the cracks in our society is not likely to be a priority any time soon.

With 70 applicants for every new vacancy, with almost a million young people unemployed and with millions more languishing in insecure, temporary and poorly paid work, the job market is now open only to those who can afford to buy their way in.

The Telegraph reports that across the country hundreds of placements are being sold or brokered, often at similar auctions for the wealthy, where the fact that proceeds go to charity gives the new nobility yet another reason to be smug about giving themselves the life chances that previous generations enjoyed for free.

For the few of us who are wealthy enough to finance ourselves through work placements, only a firm push is needed to force open the doors of opportunity. Without a co-ordinated effort to reverse this regressive trend, the years to come will be littered with wasted potential and filled with disappointment for young people with nothing to bring to the table but talent, creativity and ambition.

(*Disclosure: the New Statesman employs unpaid interns.)

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
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If Jeremy Corbyn does win, the Greens should shut up shop

If self-described socialists continue to organise outside of the Labour party, they risk depriving the left's main outlet of both talent and voters, warns Michael Chessum.

It could all be rash complacency, but for much of left thoughts have already begun to focus on the reality of a Corbyn-led Labour Party. In the Labour left, the air is swirling with new projects – to back Corbyn up as leader, to organise the membership against parts of the PLP if necessary, to bring Labour into social movements and social movements into Labour. But outside Labour, too, the wider left is waking up to discover the entirely different reality that could be posed by a sharp left turn in leadership. In the Green Party, and especially among those on the left of the party, there is increasing pressure to find a formal working arrangement with Corbyn’s Labour, much of which is reflected in Caroline Lucas’s open letter in the Independent last week. An electoral pact is, apparently, already on the table.

Lucas’s call for an electoral pact is a pretty honest gesture, and will not be entirely uncontroversial in her own party; it is certainly worth much more than, as some more cynical onlookers in Labour have put it, “please don’t run against me in Brighton Pavillion”. It could also be significant in terms of electoral arithmetic: after boundary changes, and in any tight election, Labour will need the 3.8 per cent of the vote that the Greens got at the last election.  But while Lucas and other leftwingers in the Green Party are at least acknowledging the issue, there is a danger that they will avoid a more fundamental question: if Corbyn wins, does it really make sense for self-described socialists in the Green Party to continue a separate existence outside of Labour at all?

Corbyn represents the undeniable arrival of a wider political trend. Across Europe, democratic socialism is undergoing a split: yesterday’s “realists”, who argue for an accommodation with neo-liberal economics and the austerity politics that follows it like clockwork, are on one side; on the other is an assortment of socialists and social democrats who argue for something else. Mass anti-austerity politics has not been a one-party affair in the UK: it was built from the ground up by students, workers and community campaigns; it was road-tested in Scotland; and it has been formulated into policy from a variety of angles, as well as by the Corbyn campaign itself. But now, in the face of the realities presented by five more years in opposition, the vital political expression of the anti-austerity movement seems to have come to fruition in the Labour Party.

This fact will leave one of the largest sections of the organised left – the Green left – disorientated and unsure of what to do. Some socialists and leftwingers in the Green Party are there on the basis of a genuine conviction that the green movement, rather than the labour movement, is their political home. But for the vast bulk of those drawn to the Green left – many of them freshly recruited from recent social movements, others exiles from Labour under Blair – the purpose of the Green left is premised largely on the idea that a credible party-political alternative was needed, and that an anti-austerity surge would be impossible inside the Labour Party. This premise is now ebbing away.

The race is now on for the true believers to convince their periphery of the virtues of remaining in the Green Party after Corbyn wins. Many may yet be convinced, and the Labour left should not be complacent about recruiting a sudden tide of departing Greens.  But for those who joined because they wanted to intervene into mainstream politics from the left, there should be no doubt as to where the big fights will now happen, and where those committed to having them should go.

The incorporation of elements of the radical left’s core constituency into the Greens was always a peculiarity of recent British history. Had it become a sustainable arrangement and grown into a faint British Syriza, it would have made the Green Party of England and Wales unique in Europe, where ecologist and green parties usually sit distinctly and uneasily next to their far-left counterparts.

Much of the uneasiness that characterises the relationship between green parties and radical left groupings in other countries is about ideas, but much of it is also about tribalism – the simple fact that they have separate organisations which need to be different, and which breed differences in approach as often as they reflect them. If either the Green left or the Labour left are not careful, this tribalism will replicate itself, weakening everyone and dividing the left for no particularly coherent political reason.

That is why it is so significant that figures as senior as Caroline Lucas are already making overtures to Corbyn’s Labour. However, there is a danger that behind the positive gestures lie a serious of less friendly assumptions: that any electoral pact is temporary, is designed to build and promote the existence of the two separate parties, and would end upon the introduction of a proportional voting system – a move which, although positive in itself, would further entrench the fault lines between the Green and Labour lefts.

There are numerous ways that this could be overcome which would avoid the Greens simply dissolving themselves or quietly surrendering their politics. If it carried majority support in the party, the Green Party could reach the same arrangement with Labour that the Co-operative Party has: it would have its own structures, and would run Green-Labour candidates in places where it won the selection inside the local Labour Party. If there is no majority for such an arrangement, socialist Greens who want a higher degree of unity with Labour could form a faction, first within the Greens, and, if they continued to lose the argument, they could break away to form a platform in Labour.

As the seemingly impossible becomes a reality, there will be all kinds of realignments in the political space that the Labour left and Green left both claim to occupy – not to mention a potential split on Labour’s right wing. The best hope for a healthy realignment of the British left lies in an honest exchange of ideas; a newly democratised and pluralistic Labour Party which embraces – rather than excludes – political energy formerly to its left; and a willingness on the part of external political forces to orientate themselves towards Labour as the political expression of a mass movement. Those forces should involve the left wing of the Green Party.