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

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Planting trees below Turkish bombs in Syria

Under assualt from all sides, the Kurds and their international helpers are trying to “Make Rojava Green Again”.

Turkey’s recent, bloody invasion of Rojava is codenamed “Operation Olive Branch”. It’s a cruel misnomer, and not only because scores of civilians have died in Turkey’s relentless and indiscriminate shelling of the progressive, Kurdish-led autonomous region

Afrin is the isolated western enclave of Rojava  that's currently under assault from Turkish artillery, jets, tanks and Turkish-backed jihadist militias. It’s famed for its four million olive trees – just as the larger eastern province of al-Jazira is “the breadbasket of Syria”, famed for its wheat.

But images of rolling olive groves and wheat blooming in the rich basin of the Euphrates river belie a history of wealth extraction and impoverishment under the Assad regime. Colonial-style oil and wheat monocultures, Turkish control of water supplies and five years of war have starved the earth. 

Kurdish-led ecological committees and like-minded international activists are working to Make Rojava Green Again”, in the words of a new internationally-focused campaign to plant tens of thousands of trees, and work with local farmers to build co-operative ecological structures.

Talk of tree nurseries seems incongruous in a warzone. But the land tells the story of the Kurds’ long repression – and the immense political and cultural challenges they face as they attempt to build a democratic, federalist alternative from the ashes of Syria.

“The attacks from the Turkish state are directly against the idea of an ecological, democratic society based on gender equality,” international volunteer Stefan tells the New Statesman over an encrypted phoneline. “Stopping this project means stopping the fight for a different society.”

Disconnected

Kurds are one of the largest ethnic minorities worldwide without a state of their own, instead largely inhabiting portions of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Their language and culture has long been violently repressed – Kurdish-language education was banned in Syria until the outbreak of civil war, for example. In popular adage, they have “no friends but the mountains”.

The Assad regime used agriculture to wring Kurdish land dry, and keep its farming inhabitants reliant on state support. “Under the Syrian regime it was more or less forbidden to plant trees,” says Ciya, a member of the self-administration’s ecological committee in al-Jazira. “The regime wanted us to grow wheat.” Kurds say the regime enforced deforestation even in the streets of cities like Kobane, as a method of subjugation.

Wheat monoculture. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

Monocultures put the population at perpetual risk of famine, and necessitate large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to keep the soil artificially alive – a short-term solution with ruinous results. A drought in 2007-2008 hit half-a-dozen neighbouring countries, but only in Syria did it become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Kurdish regions of northern Syria were kept dependent on Damascus for other vital necessities, and Kurdish people forced to travel into metropoles to find work.  “Under the Assad regime, the people were really disconnected from their land,” Stefan says.

Revolution

Alone on an island prison with a thousand guards for company following his 1999 capture, the venerated leader of Turkish militia group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan modified his belief in a violent Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vanguard.

Instead, he developed a libertarian ideology of “democratic confederalism”. He calls for a “soft” revolution expanding through the state, with people joining local committees and co-operatives until this "flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented” structure becomes the system of government.

When Assad started pulling forces out of Kurdish-majority regions in 2012, the PKK’s Syrian avatar (the PYD) took control of swathes of the countryside. The region is now formally known as the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”, and informally as Rojava – or “West” in Kurdish.

Perversely, ISIS’ arrival in the area – and their famous defeat by Kurdish-led militias in Kobane – gave Rojava the name on the world stage and the limited military support from the United States it needed to survive. The Kurdish PYG and PYJ militias were lionised for defeating ISIS, even as their intimate allies the PKK continue to be listed as a terror group by the UK, EU and USA.

You’ll have seen orientalising clickbait about “the women fighting ISIS”, but feminism is one of three key tenets of democratic confederalism, along with the grassroots democratisation of government and ecological principles.

British leftists who’ve returned from Rojava say the “woman’s revolution” is the most visible and successful element.  All-female militias aside, each of the thousands of local committees must have 50 per cent female representation – a principle extending to the highest offices of government. (Meanwhile, committees working on domestic issues must have a minimum 40per cent male representation, so men don’t slack off from addressing “womanly” subjects like childcare).

In a historically highly-conservative region, newly-legalised divorces have skyrocketed, while a “woman’s house” on every street provides a safe space as women engage in new educational and co-operative programmes.

Meanwhile, those committees provide a forum to “solve daily questions, organise yourself in a democratic, self-administrated way… [for] society to become conscious of itself again”. For now, they’re the junior partner in a dual-power system with a more traditionally top-down administration, but they provide a forum for ordinary citizens to vote on issues of region-wide significance.

It’s a slow and difficult process, with some neighbourhoods and villages engaging enthusiastically while others remain loyal to Assad or unconvinced of the revolution’s liberal merits. But everyone gets cheap bread and oil, and the flight of millions of refugees into areas now being pounded by Turkish jets shows how highly ordinary people value the security Rojava provides.

War

As Stefan acknowledges, however, the “ecological revolution” is lagging badly behind. Arguments that drought caused the Syrian Civil War are easily over-stated: what is certain is that war destroys the land.

Wells and springs were destroyed by retreating Islamic State forces, who started huge oil fires to shield their flight from American bombers. Depleted uranium, heavy metals, TNT and other toxic carcinogens from spent armaments leach into the soil.

Landfill outside of the city of Derik. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

According to Alan, another Kurdish member of al-Jazira’s ecological committee, “for years now, the Turkish state has restricted the water supply by building many dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and drilling wells along the border line.”

By cutting power availability down to 6 or 12 hours daily, the “self-administration” government of Rojava nonetheless ekes out 75 per cent of its electricity supply from hydroelectric sources. Fully renewable power would be achievable, were it not for Turkish control of their water sources – or the embargo.

Neither Turkey nor the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region allow people, aid or vital supplies to cross their shared borders with Rojava. Ecological ideals of self-sufficiency therefore take on a special urgency, even as circumstances make them all but impossible. Parts to repair and improve the hydro-electric plants cannot get into the country.

The embargo also contributes to a general economic crisis - grand composting and recycling programmes, for example, remain unrealised due to lack of funds.  

On the one hand, tens of thousands of hectares are being opened up to agricultural co-operatives, led by women and young people. On the other, as this frank interview with a Kurdish economic official makes painfully clear, the co-operative or “social” economy in Rojava is still dwarfed by an oil-funded war economy.

25 per cent of crops in al-Jazira are now those – beans, chickpeas – which require no irrigation, up from only 10 per cent before the start of the “revolution.” The local committees’ educational programmes are a far cry from the dubious glamour of the battle against ISIS, but in the long run they could prove just as vital.

Internationalist Commune

Westerners who go to fight – and die – in the battle against Isis are celebrated worldwide, and venerated as martyrs in Rojava itself. But increasing numbers of leftists are joining the “civil revolution” too, as teachers, doctors, engineers and environmentalists.

Some efforts have been cack-handed, for example driving malfunctioning ambulances into a region where there’s no such thing as a 999 call. A previous ecological endeavour, the “Rojava Plan”, arrived with grand and wildly inappropriate dreams to build organic fertiliser facilities and sank without a trace.

According to Stefan, the “Internationalist Commune” of civil volunteers seek to avoid these errors by understanding the revolution as a two-way process.

“The time for international help hasn’t stopped just because the war against Daesh has stopped,” he says, using the derogatory local term for Isis. His impeccable second-language English is seeded with Kurdish terms: şehid for “martyr” and tamam, or “fine”.

“Nobody would say it’s not important to fight Isis… but it’s also important to learn from and contribute to the up-building of a new society. For us Westerners, it’s really something to see the possibility of a different future.”

The “Make Rojava Green Again” project is a part of this slow drive. Even what Stefan calls their “short-term aims” will take years – planting 10,000 trees this year, and 50,000 in the next five, plus opening up a co-operative tree nursery to support local farmers.

 Photo: Internationalist Commune.

The Commune is calling for financial support, volunteers and knowledge-sharing from scientists and ecologists worldwide, as they work together with local committees and Rojava’s two co-operative nature reserves to build a revolution lasting beyond the revolutionary moment.

“In the future I will grow more trees around [my] land to keep the earth healthy, and help the other plants to grow,” says Abu Araz, a farmer who works with the Commune. Members of the Commune are already involved in civil work in Afrin, and they hope to transplant their tree-planting programmes there in the future, as “forests get destroyed, and water polluted because of the war”.

ISIS fight under the slogan baqiya wa tatamadad, or “remaining and expanding”. But they are a vanishing force now. And though other Turkish-backed jihadist forces are vying to take their place, it is the grassroots Rojava revolution which endures.

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