Interview: Hazel Blears

This is an interview I did with Hazel Blears, New Labour-ite and former Cabinet Minister, some months ago for Cherwell. I talked to her about the murky world of internships.

The first thing that strikes you about Hazel is her height – 4ft.10, the ‘motorized munchkin’ of British politics. The second thing I learnt precluded me from mentioning the first; she’s fiery – sugary sweet but not to be crossed. Suggesting a resemblance with Dolores Umbridge of the Harry Potter series would be cruel, but since the thought provokes a chuckle then superficially at least the comparison contains truth.

The daughter of a maintenance fitter, Hazel came into a firmly working-class tradition. She went to grammar school followed by Trent Polytechnic. Practicing law was her unambiguous aspiration; she describes herself then as ‘an angry young woman’ who saw law as a way to ‘stand up for people’. Was it simply a stepping stone into politics? Apparently not, though through emotively recounting the story of a job interview after graduating, it seems to have been on the agenda from the early days. After sending out ‘300 letters without reply’ she’d only been given one interview, and only since her father was doing nuts-and-bolts stuff on the company’s shop floor. ‘Half way through the interview’ however ‘the partner asked what my Dad did for the company. When I told him he was a fitter on the shop floor he closed his folder and said ‘Good Morning, I think I’ve heard enough’ and showed me the door’. This New Labour politician was inducted into the Old Labour world view of class politics at a fragile young age.

‘I realised then that it wasn’t lawyers who changed the world…the people who really change the balance of power between rich and poor are politicians. That really gave me the impetus to go for Parliament’. That wasn’t easy either. Before 1997, she had fought two seats – one ‘unwinnable’ (Tatton, then Neil Hamilton’s fiefdom) and the other (Bury South, where she lost by only 700 votes) distinctly ‘winnable’. Her disappointment over losing in Bury was an experience she coyly describes as ‘character building’. She recounts having to abandon her job and livelihood to stand, and for a while it seemed she would win. In the final week of the campaign however, following Kinnock’s notoriously hubristic Sheffield Rally and a concerted attack by the Murdoch Press, her hard work was undone. You can’t help but feel sympathy for those swing-seat constituency candidates. They must sacrifice almost everything to acheive victory, even though the end result is ultimately the consequence of national mood-swings which, on a local level, appear whimsical and callous.

A tough ride into Parliament meant that once inside she wasn’t afraid of rubbing people up the wrong way. Frank Dobson once expressed his enthusiasm for global warming through a deep aversion to Blears since ‘the rising sea levels would get her first’. Her most theatrical moment came in 2009 when she unsubtly sought to ‘rock the boat’ by resigning from Cabinet. The Labour Party prizes collegial loyalty above all else; such a blatant act of treachery combined with an unreconstructed Blairism and dodgy expenses claims has seen her stock fall among Labour insiders, rendering a return to the front-bench inconceivable.

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Yet at 56, in one of the safest seats in the country (Salford, a city ‘deep in my blood’), Hazel’s career is far from over. Like a large number of former New Labour ministers who face backbench renunciation in a Miliband government, Hazel has become a vigorous parliamentarian, campaigning most recently for universally paid internships.

The current arrangement, whereby new graduates in competitive industries must submit to years of slave labour before maybe getting a paid contract, is tough to argue for. Having Hazel as the opponent makes it all the more difficult. I had thought I was fairly clued up on the issue, insecure in the knowledge that I’ll shortly be entering the rat race. Yet my ignorance of the law, and Blears’ expertise in it opened up a fruitful discussion. ‘Unpaid internships are illegal. Under National Minimum Wage legislation, if a person has set hours and set tasks, then they are legally an employee, entitled to the [NMW]’. Indeed the concept of an ‘intern’ has no definition in British law; as Hazel describes it’s a wholly ‘American import’. If you are not an employee, you are a volunteer. Interns – with their concrete working shifts and very real workloads – very much fall into the former. Try taking a day off work as an intern and see what happens.

The point is that no new legislation is needed; the government simply ‘needs to enforce what’s already on the Statute’. However a quick scan of the popular w4mp website, where most parliamentary internships are advertised, shows how Parliament flouts the law it approved itself fourteen years ago. Martin Vickers, a Tory MP, has recently advertised a 6 month unpaid internship. When I contacted his office, his parliamentary aide was quick to reply pointing out that, having himself worked as an unpaid intern, ‘[he] benefited immeasurably from the experience and was [subsequently] successful in securing paid employment in a career I love’. In the past some interns had been paid, ‘depending on their individual circumstances and the availability of funds’ in the office.

I put it to Blears that the good intentions of the campaign betray its naivety. If the problem is a deficit of working-class people in politics, then isn’t the requirement for MPs’ offices to pay them a salary – making it more costly to offer internships – counter-productive? In the murky world of upper-middle class patronage, the few remaining ones will be doled out by MPs to personal contacts and family friends. She’s not persuaded, recounting Tory scaremongering over the NMW, which despite concerns about youth unemployment substantially raising living standards in the bottom decile with no extra unemployment. I suspect the two cases are less than analogous. Indeed it simply is not credible that salaried internships will lead to anything other than their intense scarcity, especially given how sensitive politicians like Vickers are to be seen to provide taxpayer value. But this misses the point, which is that the number of internships available does nothing for social mobility if they are all occupied by rich kids. In other words, fewer overall internships are a fair price to pay for a more equitable distribution of the opportunities entailed by them.

As she rightly notes, it’s not just young people who have a stake in this; ‘the country as whole loses out [in terms of] talent and creativity’. Indeed by allowing internships to be captured by the wealthy we are hugely restricting the talent pool from which to dram tomorrow’s leaders. If Roy Hodgson, the England Manager, decided to only pick players with rich parents, there would be uproar. Not just because of the unfairness – debasing an honour (playing for ones country) by discriminating on income as opposed to merit – but because the team would be pants. The decision would rightly be seen as a massive, self-inflicted own-goal (to exhaust the metaphor).

Leaving Portcullis House I speak with Kay, Hazel’s intern, about her experience. She’d previously nurtured vague political aspirations but hadn’t realised, until now, how getting ahead in the Westminster village ‘is all about the connections’ which she’s tentatively started making. Gazing around the central atrium Kay is a refreshing contrast to the other floppy-haired, self-assured SPADs I observe busying about. If more parliamentarians adopted intern-pay, if we had more Kays, I daresay the next generation’s political leaders would seem considerably less odious.

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