Tag Archives: Nick Clegg

Interns: The Whole System is Wrong

One of the more worrying American imports in recent years is the so-called ‘internship’. Nick Clegg launched an attack on them yesterday, and has opened himself up to ‘hypocrite’ charges as a result.

For anyone with no idea what a internship is – basically employers offer a program that gives students, new graduates or ‘gap-year kids’ the opportunity to get ‘work-experience’ for the company, unpaid, often for a University summer, sometimes for much longer. The argument goes that that the company is doing the kid a favour – these aren’t real jobs, really just admin – but it gives the interns a ‘foot-in-the-door’, a ‘network of contacts in the industry’, the chance to check it is really the right industry for them and most importantly the magic ‘experience’ to add to their CV. This helps escape the job-seeker’s paradox that you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job. The employers are often so impressed with interns that at the end job offers may be made. When presented like that it sounds like the company is doing a great social good. ‘Helping job-seekers!’. Very worthy. The reality isn’t quite so straightforward nor is it the win-win for all it first appeared.

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I am a huge advocate of the importance of both meritocracy and competition (see my philosophy page). Meritocracy is key to social mobility, which in turn is key to attaining social justice. As we drift to internships becoming a ‘cultural norm’ in the UK we’re creating a blocker to meritocracy. In the long run this will harm our economy and society.

When you listen to the work that interns really do they are typically not ‘work-experience’ in the sense of shadowing someone doing their day-job or having a go while the incumbent looks on. No, more normally they have interns doing ‘real jobs’. They’re expected to arrive and work set hours, and often kicked out of the program if they do not. They have set administrative duties to perform which keep the business going. To me this crosses the line from ‘work experience’ to outright exploitation. If the interns weren’t doing this work then somebody in paid employment would be. That person would then be off the unemployment register and paying tax and NI and pumping those earnings back into the economy. Instead we have them still on the dole whilst the student extends their debt and works for free with no guarantee of any reward at the end. I can only spot one real winner in the arrangement.

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We need to consider who has the means to take internships: Who can offer three months of their lives working without pay, living in a big city? Only people with alternative financial support. Straight away that excludes a whole chunk of society. The kids from the estates to who we’ve been preaching if they work hard they can achieve anything; who then put their heads-down, ignored the peer-pressure, worked hard, got the GCSEs and A-Levels, went to Uni and got the 2-1 or first degree’s now find themselves stuck in the old job-seeker’s paradox and flipping burgers, angry and disenchanted with society and saddled with university debt. Meanwhile, the well-to-do kid who scraped through their GCSEs and A-Levels thanks to the kind of one-on-one educational attention you only get at the best independent schools, who drank their way through uni but pulled their socks up just enough to get an OK 2:2 sails into the intern post because they can stay with Mum and Dad and have an allowance. They get the magic experience on the CV, they get the contacts and the reference, they get the end job. Now, they may well be ‘able’ enough to do the job, but the ‘better’ candidate has missed out. That stinks to me every bit as much as those well meaning, misguided affirmative action plans companies have in place. Both spit in the face of the idea of meritocracy.

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The trend is embedding. In some industries it is almost becoming a pre-requisite to entry that you have done an internship. We must level this playing field. It pains me to say it, because by nature I’m against regulation but to get proper meritocracy and competition working we should legistlate that if the internship has the characteristics of real employment then legally it must be treated as such with a formal contract, fair selection process, and at least a minimum wage salary. In the long run this will be a real win-win for every player in the economy.

Rather than wait for such regulation I hope the companies realise now that they are being short-sighted by saving pennies here which could cost them pounds later. The barrier to entry means they’re potentially missing out the very best, hungriest talent. The outlay of paying minimum wage for administrative support is minimal. The return on genuinely recruiting the best people into your firm for the long-run will pay back that tenfold. Meritocracy is not just good for society – it is good for business too.

[This is a rehash of an article on the subject I first wrote in Nov 2009]

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Oldham & Saddleworth Result: Thoughts

So that’s that then*. A solid result for Labour.  A hold with an increased majority. I think the result was about as expected – you could, I suppose, argue the Tories did slightly worse and Lib Dems slightly better than expected – if that is correct then it is a function of:

  • The Conservative CCHQ seemed to do no more than the bare minimum to support their candidate – there is suspicion that a tactical decision was taken not to allow a result that would undermine Clegg and this meant not fighting too hard. I’m sure there will be some angst between the grass-roots and the tacticians in the Party about this over the coming weeks.
  • Partly as a result of the above, and partly regardless, many Tories will have tactically voted Lib Dem this time around. Clearly not enough to compensate those switching Lib Dem to Labour.
  • The turnout was down but I would expect this to be spread evenly between the parties.

All in – no real news. Easily a good enough result to keep Ed knockers in the party on the leash, but not quite good enough that they wont still be straining on it.  As by-election swings go it is pretty undramatic.

*Full Result: Labour: 14,718 (42.1%) Lib Dems: 11,160 (31.9%) Conservatives: 4,481 (12.8%) UKIP: 2,029 (5.8%) BNP: 1,560 (4.5%) Green Party: 530 (1.5%) Monster Raving Loony Party: 145 (0.4%) English Democrats: 144 (0.4%) Pirate Party: 96 (0.2%) Bus Pass Elvis Party: 67 (0.1%)

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Insider View of Coalition Negotiations

On Tuesday I attended a fascinating seminar at Portcullis House on the nuts and bolts of the Coalition negotiations in May.  The speakers were Lib Dem David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson, both of whom are peddling their respective books on the subject*.  For me, it was a unique chance to get a perspective from people who were ‘in the thick of it’.

A  blow-by-blow account of the evening has been done by a Lib Dem blogger here and I wont try to better that.  I will just summarise my take-away points:

  • The Lib Dems were genuinely knocked backwards by their election showing.  Nothing in their private polling had led them to expect so few seats.  Before polls closed Danny Alexander (then Clegg’s chief-of-staff) was briefing his colleagues to expect 80-85 seats.  He was way out.
  • The Lib Dems were between a rock and a hard place.  Although many of their key players would have felt more comfortable in a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour – the Parliamentary maths and Labour’s attitude made that a no-go.  At the same time if they couldn’t form a coalition with the Conservatives we would enter a period of unstable Government with another election in November.  They reasoned a) they would do worse and b) a short-lived impotent hung parliament would be very damaging to their long term aspiration for PR – a system which would lead to hung parliaments as the norm rather than the exception.
  • The Labour party machine seemed to have done literally no planning for the eventuality of a hung parliament.  Laws had the sense they were making it up as they went along – a sense that Wilson confirmed through his interviews with the key players on their team.
  • The Conservatives had done proper planning for the Hung Parliament scenario.   They were very quick to produce a document that conceded so much the Lib Dems had no choice but to take them seriously.   Laws’ view was that the Tories essentially came into discussions with a ‘cut-to-the-chase’ final position.   The only thing that was unacceptable in the first offer was on electoral reform  (the proposal being to simply to set up another Commission to look at the subject).  I pressed Laws on whether with hindsight – if the Tories showed they had wiggle room on Electoral reform, perhaps there was wiggle room on other areas had he pushed harder.  He didn’t think so.   I personally do wonder.  Wilson made the point that for many, if not most Tories the ‘key concessions’ – the no tax on first £10k and the pupil premium were not any wrench to concede – most would have loved those policies in their manifesto in the first place.
  • Laws and the Lib Dems struggled in the negotiations to figure out how to navigate so much so quickly whilst still staying within their internal party processes.  When Laws observed the Conservative Party was spared these constraints with the leader being an effective ‘absolute monarchy’ William Hague knowingly shot back that the check and balance was “our monarchy is qualified by frequent regicide”.
  • On the final day Brown had lost the plot so much he even offered the Lib Dems 50% of Cabinet seats.

It was a good event and the second time that I have heard Laws speak.  He does impress and seems a very good counter-balance to the more loony fringes in the Lib Dem party. It underlined for me the sadness that through his wrong-doing he excluded himself from Cabinet.   If you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, you still do the wrong thing.  His replacement is not half as able.  I noted yesterday that Cameron was asked if he wanted Laws back: “Yes, and soon” was the reply.   On reflection, I could live with that.

* Rob Wilson has released 5 Days to Power while David Laws book is 22 Days in May.

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Pakistan Floods: The Politics of Aid

Why has the international community been so slow to help Pakistan?  There is no doubt that that there is a genuine disaster underway.   Some 20 million people have now been affected and reports suggest somewhere between 1600 and 2000 people have lost their lives.

Predictably, a scout around online forums finds some people ranting that ‘our lack of response’ is an ‘anti-Muslim’ thing.  “There would be a far bigger deal if we didn’t lump Pakistan in with terrorists”.  Equally predictably in forums, we find people with the opposite world view advocating that we not help precisely because “Pakistan is Harbouring Bin Laden”, “Pakistan can still afford a nuclear program”, “Pakistanis play both ways in the War-On-Terror”, etc.   You find a strange mish-mash of some truths, some half-truths, some falsehoods and some outright racism.  And that is before you add in the obligatory “We have enough problems of our own at home and a financial crisis” to the mix.

So, is Britain either consciously or sub-consciously doing less than it should to help Pakistan?  A look at the figures would suggest not.  The stark fact is only one other country on planet Earth has thus far done more to provide aid for the disaster –

Q. Who is this mega donor?

A. The supposedly ‘Muslim Hating’ United States.

As at 17th August 2010 the US has provided approaching $100m which is 38% of all relief money.  The UK is at number two having provided 16% of all money (circa $40 million).  You can see the full list here.

What is very curious when you look at this list is the absence of any co-ordinated response from fellow Muslim countries.  On the face of it you would think these countries are beyond any ‘anti-Muslim’ charge.  It is true that there have been gestures by both Kuwait and the UAE but neither registers in the top ten.  Islamic States such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Oman, Qatar, Jordan and Libya do not even register on the donor list despite many having breathtaking petro-wealth.   This does beg a question as to why?   What has Pakistan done to so alienate itself from its brethren?   – theories I’ve heard knocking around are:

  • The Pakistani President swanning round Europe at the start of the disaster sent a message that the disaster wasn’t that bad
  • Ironically, a sense by some Muslim States that Pakistani government has sided too much with the US and become a stooge.  (Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!)
  • No sense of scale/drama.  Circa 2000 dead wouldn’t yet put the disaster in the ‘Top 10’ disasters for the last decade if you measure these things only by fatalities.  There is an element of compassion fatigue.
  • A knowing lack of faith that in a corrupt state any aid donated will reach the intended recipients
  • Some subconscious or conscious racism by Gulf States?  Pakistanis may be Muslim but they are not Arab.  Likewise with Sunni/Shia divisions….

I’m not going to pretend to know the answer or how much store to put into any of the above.   I’m also going to knock on the head the idea that the above should be used as some kind of perverse evidence for making the case the UK has already done too much.  What I do want to get across is that  we should be proud that we are leading the world in getting this tragedy on the global agenda rather than have some weird guilt-dripping angst that we’re part of a grand conspiracy to keep these people in misery.

Nick Clegg was right yesterday when he described the international response as pitiful.  He is absolutely correct to try and shame nations to matching our response.  We in Britain can and should stand tall for our doing the right thing when the innocent suffer.

As always it is also enhancing for us as individuals to help and not rely just on Governments to do the right thing.  With that in mind if you want to help the situation in Pakistan then this appeal is one of the charities where you can have a high level of confidence that your money will reach the needy.  The situation is bad.  Please give generously:  CLICK HERE TO MAKE UNICEF DONATION

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    The Brutal Budget?

    Well, I’ve just watched George Osborne come of age.  The ‘light-weight’, ‘inexperienced’, ‘young’ Chancellor gave an assured performance that will do wonders for his poor reputation.  It should also dispel some of the prejudice that still exists about the modern Conservative Party.

    The spin that had been dripping out from Whitehall over the last few weeks could be summarised in one sentence: “This is going to Hurt”.  The facts about the economic situation were not in question –

    • For every three pounds we currently receive in tax receipts we are spending four on public services (i.e we have a significant structural deficit).
    • The National Debt is already £22,400 per head.

    The nation could not go on spending like drunken sailors on shore-leave.  You cannot tackle the debt until you tackle the structural deficit.  You can only tackle the structural deficit in one of two ways – raise taxes or cut public spending.  The trouble for George Osborne is that neither is a popular thing for a Government to do.  But in some ways the choice was made for him, as he put it, “We are over-spending – We are not under-taxed”.  So with an impossible juggling trick demanded what is my gut reaction to what he has done today?

    Well he had some pleasant surprises that may confuse those who cannot see the Tories as anything other than the ‘nasty party’:

    • The increase in the tax-fee allowance was inspired and will benefit those on the lowest pay.  I fully acknowledge that this was a Lib Dem policy but it is a credit to our Coalition that we really have cherry picked the best thinking from both Parties.  880,000 of the poorest working people taken out of tax.  Wonderful.
    • The raise in Capital Gains Tax will mean that the wealthiest in our society cannot be accused of not shouldering their share of the burden.  Those who thought the Tories were all about protecting the rich ahead of helping the economy have been proved wrong.
    • His surrender of forecasting powers to the Office for Budget Responsibility is absolutely the right thing to do for the country – but removes a key ability for him to ‘play politics’.  The best thing Brown ever did as Chancellor was give up the power to play politics with interest rates – Osborne takes this to the logical next step.
    • The acknowledgement that the banks brought about the financial crisis and the new measures to tax riskier aspects of their behaviour will be in tune with popular feeling and was the right thing to do.
    • Restoring the link between state pensions and earnings.
    • As a small-business owner I was delighted with the measures he put in place to give us a fighting chance of getting through the recession.
    • No cuts in capital expenditure.  A grown up lesson learned from the last time the Conservatives were in power in the early 1990s.

    The headline will of course be about the rise in VAT.  For all the above the pain had to come and this is where the punch landed.  A tax on consumption does encourage individual prudence, but it also risks lowering consumer spending to the point that both retail and manufacturing are hurt.  The leap of faith (no doubt supported by economic modelling) must be that the proportional pain caused by the 2.5% rise is counterbalanced by the good to the economy from the reduction in structural deficit.  We need to monitor this closely and make sure the economic modelling is correct – if it backfires we shouldn’t shy away from course-correcting quickly.

    Obviously, much of the pain is also going to be felt by the Civil Service when the departmental cuts have to be worked through and Councils as they struggle to work within the constraints brought about by a council tax freeze.  The challenge for both Civil Service and Councils will be to deliver those reductions with the same equity and tone that the Chancellor managed today – and crucially without hitting the public perception of service delivery.  Ultimately, for right or wrong, it will be that upon which the Coalition is judged.

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    Backstage at the Leaders Debate

    It’s not often you get to elbow the Secretary of State for Defence. OK, it was an accident, but let me revel in the glory anyway… Bob Ainsworth was behind me worming his way towards Kay Burley to demand an interview, my mobile was glued-to-ear, I turned round quickly and my elbow clipped him. “Sorry”, I said, as recognition instantly made it a polite lie. Disappointingly, he brushed on past leaving my minor assault wholly unacknowledged – he was so desperate to get on the goggle box it left him oblivious to pain. The media circus was in town and nothing was going to stop Ainsworth playing his role as a clown. For Bristol yesterday this circus was the only show in town.

    I was on a blag as a guest of Sky TV with a ring-side seat to the razzmatazz. A picture-postcard sunny day saw the troupe rock up, pitch their tents and bring the place to a standstill. The venue was amongst Bristol’s newish waterfront development and so the whole area was ringed by shirt-sleeved machine-gun-toting policemen, grubby looking students with obligatory anti-war placards, fancy-dressed attention-seekers and stressed looking TV crews rigging up kit. Pubs opposite the venue were packed to the rafters, the lager taps flowing which added to an atmosphere seeped in anticipation. Bristol was buzzing. By the time the Prime Minister arrived the mob was well oiled and it was briefly more pantomime than circus as they made their feelings about him known.

    I’ll not dwell on the debate itself – every utterance and mannerism has already been scrutinized to the nth degree by every journalist and blogger in Britain. I’ll just share my general impression that all three raised their game from the first debate, it was more compelling to watch and I would ‘score’ it in terms of public perception roughly the same: Clegg first. Cameron second. Brown third. Albeit I’d have Clegg not as far ahead and Brown not as far behind as last time. Brown wins the sound-bite of the night for his ‘Big Society – Little Britain’ jibe. Despite a good performance I’m not sure the debate has helped bolster David Cameron. The Conservatives should be able to put the Lib Dem surge to bed on a Foreign Policy centred debate but it didn’t happen. I know there are a multitude of instant exit polls which will either contradict or support that view but I can only call it as I saw it and I trust my gut-instinct on these things more than I trust any paid-for poll.

    For me though the real education of the evening was watching up-close the dance between the media and the politicians. When you first arrive at the media centre the scale of the operation seems huge. Banks of desks, loaded with wi-fi laptops showing the journo’s twitter accounts, big screen monitors showing various feeds from around the building. Camera men. Sound men. Print men. News Anchors. Everyone looking earnest and busy. At the side of the room the politicians and their minders wait. The politico’s blackberries purr right through the debate with every statement by the opposition instantly fact-checked, whenever the opposition scored a perceived hit the blackberries again buzzed with quickly crafted rebuttal phrases to get out to the press later. And then the debate ended and the madness began…

    All parties know that the immediate spin after the debate can define public perception as much as the debate itself. Getting to the big hitter media straight away is everything. Suddenly, as you watch you realise that what seemed such a huge operation and a mass of media is really quite a small cliquey affair. Fundamentally, on camera we have BBC, SKY and to a lesser extent ITV. That’s it. The print journos that matter are the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Sun and Mirror (to a lesser extent the Independent) and that’s it. Get to those people and every other commentator simply feeds off their output. In a nod to the blogosphere Will Straw (from Left Foot Forward) and Tim Montgomerie (from Conservative Home) were both afforded the same access as the key newspapermen. So really even the blogs have gone mainstream! There used to be an expectation that the blogosphere would mean that these few key news organisations would lose their prominence and importance. Not a bit of it – the blogosphere feeds off their output – true there is wider comment nowadays and the relationship is symbiotic – but it’s the old media who are still the daddy. The politicians worked the room on their unspoken rota, mentally ensuring they got to each of that hit-list of folk to talk to. The traditional image of the journo chasing the interviewee and begging for them to be granted the great favour of a quick line is turned on its head here. Instead, the key journos stay in place and the politicos come to them and beg for the interview. It was a sight to behold. We had Ashdown, Milliband (Snr), May, Ainsworth (oblivious to his new bruise), Campbell, Huhne and Gove to name-drop just a fraction of those in the room fighting to get on camera. Brown, Clegg and Cameron would by now be on the way home but make no mistake that round two was continuing with brutality in the Media Centre. And so it went on….

    I went back up to the Sky Party and watched the last of the interviews in the bar. There was a healthy mix of people with different voting intentions discussing it. Of those who would confess to a clear party allegiance unsurprisingly everyone (except me) saw their man as the clear winner. The interesting thing was the undecided lot – none of them would pin their flag to a clear winner. Perhaps then it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

    For a party activist these debates are nerve-wracking. You know that all those thousands of leaflets you stuff through letter boxes, all the door knocking, and all the other local campaign stuff is only ever really worth, at most, about three percent of your local vote. It’s the national stuff that counts most and we’re helpless to control that. Here in one hour your leader can wipe out all that good work with one poor phrase. Cameron did not do that. But he didn’t land any huge punches either. Am I nervous? A little. Am I losing any faith that he is the right man for the job or he has the right vision for Britain? Not a bit of it. Do I wish we didn’t have the debates? The pragmatic campaigner in me says yes – they haven’t helped us and have risked damaging us – but the democrat in me over-rides that. These debates have helped re-engage the public after a full-on collapse of trust in politics. The debates are healthy for our democracy and frankly that’s more important.  Roll on the next one.

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