House of poshos

MPs’ dependence on unpaid interns gives those from richer backgrounds a headstart on breaking into

Charlie Sonnex works the night shift at Sainsbury's. Last year, he worked next to Andy Coulson, the Conservatives' director of communications, as an intern at the party's headquarters in Westminster. He wanted to stay on, but after nine months of working unpaid, he couldn't afford it. "All the interns there had rich parents and savings, so I guess the office just had enough applications to keep it going."

Sonnex was one of the estimated 450 revolving interns working in parliament. Together, they prop up our democracy by providing as many as 18,000 hours of free labour a week, saving MPs an estimated £5m a year in labour costs. Of a cross-party selection of interns interviewed, nearly two-thirds said they had worked for three months or more and most of them were doing the same tasks and hours as salaried staff. For many, it was their second or third placement. But, according to the general workers' union Unite, under 1 per cent of parliamentary interns receive the minimum wage, and almost half of them don't even get expenses.

“If we want a representative parliament, we need people from diverse backgrounds," says Dan Whittle, a representative from the parliamentary branch of Unite. "Parliament should be setting an example in social mobility, not hindering it."

According to Sonnex, most interns are middle-class or upper-middle-class, with private means. "My family are middle-class - we do all right. But the interns at HQ have got horses and Aston Martins," he says. "They'd all go out for food and drinks after work . . . Lots of the shadow cabinet were drinking with them - but I had no money whatsoever."

The practice isn't confined to a particular party (nor to parliament: organisations across the private sector, including the New Statesman, use unpaid interns). The minister for higher education, David Lammy, has interns working unpaid for months at a time in his office. One of his interns said that they worked all weekend to finance their positions, and another - ironic, given Lammy's rhetoric about social mobility - said he lived on "pocket money from parents". An intern for a Liberal Democrat MP supported an unpaid internship by working at a call centre. Interns from all parties report that they have had to call in sick because they couldn't afford the travel expenses to get to work.

Talent pool

It's not surprising there are so few names attached to these stories. Interns are disposable, and those who question the conditions are rebuked. When an intern for one of the main parties agreed to do a media interview about her time in parliament with the consent of her manager, it backfired. She never revealed the name of her MP, but when asked about pay, she said she had received only a month's expenses out of four because her receipts had been lost. When the interview was published, she got calls from party officials. "People were phoning up and threatening me," she says.

All the leading parties are committed to minimum-wage legislation, which recognises that there should be basic pay for work. More recently, Alan Milburn's July 2009 report on social mobility pointed out that a two-week placement in London can cost up to £500 in rent, food and transport. "Current employers are missing out on talented people," the report said. "There are negative consequences for social mobility and fair access to the professions. A radical change is needed."

In October, the Speaker, John Bercow, acknowledged that if interns were doing regular work and regular hours, then minimum-wage legislation should apply. In its investigation into MPs' expenses, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority supported the Speaker's statement, reiterating that interns should be paid the minimum wage.

Unions are warning that if MPs aren't careful, they could be vulnerable. An employment tribunal in Reading last November ruled that a company hiring an intern on expenses only was in breach of minimum-wage laws. "MPs could get into serious legal trouble," says Whittle. "MPs think that they can pay expenses and say they're voluntary and they'll be protected, but the Reading judgment opened the way for minimum-wage claims. All it would take is one former intern to take them to a tribunal. A case like that could destroy an MP's career."

The reaction of some MPs to paying the minimum wage has been rather incredulous. The campaign group Interns Anonymous recently published a letter from the Conservative MP Philip Hammond that read: "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. I therefore have no intention of changing my present arrangements."

When other politicians were asked for a response, Lammy said that, unfortunately, his ability to pay interns is "constrained by the amount of money provided by the House of Commons", but that parliament should "look seriously at the issues of internships". When Sonnex's story was presented to Conservative campaign headquarters, it said that interns were "volunteers not workers", and that interning is a "great way to get a new generation involved in politics and our democratic process". Hammond declined to make any further comment.

Five a day

Of the interns interviewed for this article, almost all felt that their MPs would like to pay the minimum wage but were unable to do so, as the £100,000 staffing allowance failed to cover basic requirements.

“The staffing allowance allowed only two full-time workers," says 20-year-old Emily Baxter, who worked for a Lib Dem MP in London for two and a half months. "It was nowhere near enough . . . They wanted to pay the interns, but they didn't have the budget. The £5 a day I got for rent, food and transport was not enough, but they had made clear that if that was a problem, they couldn't employ me."

Over the past year, a series of campaigns has been launched to change the system. Interns Anonymous, Carrotworkers' Collective, Internocracy and Intern Aware are all campaigning on the issue and trying to reach out to the wider public. "We're working with university groups across the country, including Bristol and Oxford, to pressure parliament to implement its own minimum-wage legislation," says Intern Aware's co-founder Ben Lyons.

But it would be wrong to dismiss all MPs. Across the parties, 1 per cent of members are paying the minimum wage to interns and campaigning for a better deal. The Lib Dems have been particularly active, with Phil Willis making the case in public, and Evan Harris implementing a policy of paying all his non-student interns the minimum wage. There is, however, a long way to go. If we want parliament to change, and MPs to be more representative of the people they serve, we have to make the doors to our houses of power more accessible.

For more information, visit internaware.org, internocracy.org and internsanonymous.co.uk
Rowenna Davis is a freelance journalist.

 

A Rolls-Royce standard

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, is among the 1 per cent of MPs who pay their interns the minimum wage

“There are three reasons to introduce a formal system that offers interns compensation," he says. "First, being an intern is one of the best ways into employment. Second, unless you have private means or somewhere to crash in London, you can't intern at the House of Commons.

“This seems wrong. Internships at the House should be a Rolls-Royce standard that can set an example - not a privilege.

“Third, paying the minimum wage would enable parliament to have a formal contract about what the internship will deliver to young people. Parliament has always relied on unpaid interns for basic duties, but that doesn't mean it's right.

“If an MP is expecting set responsibilities and set tasks to be completed, then they're contravening minimum-wage legislation by not paying. I pay my interns out of staffing costs and private funds. It's tight, but I think it's worth it to invest in engaging the next generation of young people in politics.

“I hope that, after I leave, the Speaker will put this high on his agenda for the new parliament. I've always cared deeply about young people, and justice for interns is the legacy I'd like to leave the House."

Rowenna Davis

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge