They’re All At It Together…

by Prof Ryan Spox

Things that annoyed me today:

Mostly it was the vexing issue of MPs’ salaries. Apparently, we don’t currently pay them a high enough salary to encourage top-flight politicians to enter the profession. Clearly, this is bad thing for the future of our nation since, as we are constantly being reminded, you have to pay top salaries if you want to hire top people. (Unless those people are, say, nurses, teachers or members of any of the emergency services.) If we want top quality government, we’re going to have to pay more to attract top quality professionals, experienced in the art and science of governing.

Except, in a democracy, that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

We have neither the time not the inclination to deliver a lecture on the convoluted historical development of the British democratic system. Let’s just say that, if you are a “typical, average Briton”, Parliament did not even pretend to care about representing your interests until about a hundred years ago. Government of the People, by the People, for the People has never been the business of the UK Parliament.

But, these days, the exalted elite who slumber in its hallowed chambers have to pretend, at least publicly, that representation of your interests is what they are all about. And, by some convoluted logic only they can understand, it follows, therefore, that whatever we’re paying them, it isn’t nearly enough.

Back in January, when a gaggle of not- terribly-busy MPs found the time to fill out a pay-related survey, this revealed that, on average, they felt they deserved a pay rise of over 30%. (We do wonder what sort of results we would get if we allowed the workers in any institution to say how much of a pay rise they thought they deserved. If they averaged 30% would that be sufficient motivation for their employers to rush through such a pay rise? We suspect not.) Sadly for the MPs they are no longer allowed to just vote themselves a decent raise – they lost that power in the aftermath of the expenses scandal, when the nation discovered that many MPs regarded the submitting of dodgy expenses claims as an entirely legitimate way of supplementing their meagre incomes. Since it seems we can no longer trust them to handle the petty cash, a suitable “independent commission” now decides if they deserve a pay increase. Speculation at the moment is that a more moderate figure of 10-15% will be suggested as a reasonable raise. For the record, most public sector salaries are, to all intents and purposes, frozen; many private sector ones have gone down in recent years. We truly are all in this together.

Historically, of course, MPs didn’t get paid at all. Partially this was because serving in Parliament was seen as a civic duty, a calling rather than a profession. Like being a minister of religion. Or a missionary. But mainly it was because, to be an MP, you had to be rich already. Salaries for MPs were only introduced at the start of the 20th Century precisely because it was otherwise impossible for people (at this stage only men, of course) who were not independently wealthy to dedicate several years of their lives to Parliamentary service. This is one reason for the historically close relationship between the Labour Party and the unions – the unions funded the first Labour MPs who, otherwise, would have slept in the Commons chamber and eaten out of Westminster bins.

Today MPs are really rather well paid, with a basic salary of £66,000 and all sorts of generous top-ups if they actually take on any real responsibility, like chairing committees or heading a government department. Obviously they could all earn much more by working in the City or writing opinion pieces for national newspapers but, even for people who have selflessly devoted themselves to a life of public service with long and anti-social hours, they are still remarkably well rewarded. And that’s without factoring in all the other perks and expenses for which they are eligible.

And that, it seems to us, is the problem here. In a representative democracy, becoming an MP, whether you pass your time as a lowly back-bencher or rise to ministerial glory, is supposed to be something that citizens do out of a desire to serve. Whether they are serving the Crown, or the Nation or their fellow citizens is irrelevant. What they should not be doing, however, is serving themselves.

So, the very fact that we have “professional politicians” is inherently undemocratic. (And don’t get us started on the obscenity revealed by the endless references to “the political class”.) MPs should serve a term or two (at most) and then be recycled back into the community. No-one should ever look on Parliamentary service as a career in itself. And, unless you are a complete buffoon, the fact that you have served, even if for just one Parliamentary term, is always going to enhance your employment. If nothing else, it should guarantee you a job as a teacher in one of that nice Mr Gove’s new Free Schools – no training or relevant experience required, after all.

We saw, on TV news, some silly Conservative MP grumbling about how he gave up a more lucrative job and took a significant pay cut when he became an MP. No, he didn’t, he took a career break in order to serve the community and a grateful community responded by paying him a decent stipend to compensate him whilst he served. He went on to say that, unless MPs remuneration was made more competitive we would end up with a Parliament filled with chaps like him who were, well, independently wealthy or 20-30 year olds who had no experience of government but could afford to serve because they had not yet acquired those significant life expenses, like a string of polo ponies or a tax-deductible vineyard in France, that the average Brit has to pay for.

There is so much wrong with this attitude that we barely know where to start…

Firstly, the use of “remuneration” and “competitive” is wholly misleading. We call what MPs get a “salary” but really it is a “stipend” which can be usefully defined as:

a payment that enables somebody to be exempt partly or wholly from waged or salaried employment in order to undertake a role that is normally unpaid.”

Stipends aren’t meant to be “competitive”. They’re meant to be adequate to reward what you do in light of the sacrifice you make. Quite a different thing.

Secondly, a Parliament with a higher percentage of 20-30 year olds might not be a bad thing. Once you pass the age of forty you learn to cope with the fact that all young people are idiots by recognising that they are no greater idiots than you were at their age and at least they have the energy to actually participate in a vigorous Parliamentary debate until 2am then spend two hours knocking back cheap shots in a heavily subsided Westminster bar and still be able to chair a sub-committee meeting at 9am, fuelled only by a bacon roll and a can of Red Bull.

And, thirdly, the idea that paying MPs a mere three times the national average wage (again, not including perks and expenses) means only the rich will bother to enter Parliament is patently untrue. When MPs got no salary at all, people still stood for, and got elected to, Parliament, precisely because they had the passion and the conviction to try and do something worthwhile to make life better for others. Wouldn’t we be better off with a Parliament filled with passionate people, young, old, male, female, all creeds, colours and shoe sizes, a representative cross-section of the UK population, all of whom had chosen to make an admittedly small sacrifice in order to serve a higher purpose?

We’d vote for that.

In fact, the threat of a future filled only with super-rich MPs is just a rather crude scare tactic. Our “Rich Disgruntled Tory” of Westminster is basically saying:

“Pay me more to be an MP or you’ll only have people like me as MPs.”

Does that even make sense?

To cap it all, the broadcast media have been going round asking people if MPs are paid enough and then comparing their current salaries with all sorts of totally irrelevant and incompatible actual, genuine professions, like head teachers, and senior civil servants and top army commanders. And, yes, MPs salaries are lower than most of those but that is precisely because being an MP is not a profession and certainly should not be a career. It is an act of public service which involves some personal sacrifice but, through salary, expenses and perks, a grateful nation will ensure that the financial sacrifice, at least, is not too great. As a starting point, we would suggest that, in addition to reasonable and justifiable expenses, MPs should be paid the national average wage. That might focus their minds a bit and also give them an incentive to boost the economy in way that truly benefits everyone. They don’t even need a London weighting because the expenses will take care of their food, rent and travel.

But if they really must get some sort of pay rise, perhaps it should be performance related? And that performance should be tied to defined targets in areas that genuinely measure the delivery of good governance to the nation as a whole. In that spirit of public service that should underpin our democracy, we would be more than happy to take six months out of our day job and, say, a quarter million pounds of tax-payers’ money, and devise a fair and transparent remuneration scheme for our elected representatives.

And we wouldn’t even ask for expenses.