MPs’ pay – stating the bleeding obvious

9 12 2013

A few quick words on MPs’ pay.

First, the body that recommended the pay rise may be politically neutral, but it is not ‘independent’ in its views on what we might call ‘public sector executive pay’. Why not? Because the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is made up of public sector executives.

Have a look at the board members – here they are. We have an ex-MP, a judge, two former NHS executives and two former quango bigwigs. Those latter four share the career paths of those who spent the best part of the 2000s trousering huge salaries, usually on the basis that they were running large organisations, had considerable responsibilities, and could earn so much more in the private sector.

Pretty much the same arguments regularly wheeled out in favour of MPs earning treble the average wage, then. The pay at IPSA’s not too shabby either.

There’s a line going around that ‘people’ wanted an independent body to determine MPs’ pay, rather than have MPs vote for their own pay rises. This is not strictly true. What most people wanted, as I recall, was an end to MPs getting inflation-busting pay rises well above those of the population at large, as well as their infamously lax expenses regime. MPs had in the past voted themselves a hefty raise – so an independent body was the response. But it’s been stuffed full of suits who are naturally sympathetic to inflation-busting pay rises – and so, once again, we have MPs getting inflation-busting pay rises. There is no public inconsistency here – people, generally, are opposed to this sort of thing no matter what manoeuvring is used to bring it about.

Whilst I accept some of the rationale for ‘competitive’ public sector executive pay (within reason), I think MPs should be paid the average wage of their constituents – same goes for elected trade union officials. I think that MPs should know how their constituents live – how else can they reasonably advocate and legislate on their behalf? If that provides them with an inadequate standard of living – well, that’s telling them something quite pertinent, isn’t it…

I do accept that there are counter-arguments to that. It would favour MPs who had considerable assets, savings, inherited wealth, for whom the low MP’s salary would simply mean dipping into their personal reserves. Meanwhile, those MPs without such financial backing would be signing up for a certain level of hardship; many would therefore be deterred.

But that doesn’t mean salaries have to be three times the average. I’ve seen a few arguments being trotted out in favour of the pay rise, usually enunciated by the kind of people who make great play of being ‘reasonable’ and ‘moderate’ – and to use the technical term, they’re bollocks.

First, high MPs’ pay does not ‘attract the best people’. We do not have anything like the best people – for the most part, we have a pretty low standard of MP. Anyone claiming that we are attracting the best people needs to find a pretty good explanation for the state of parliament in recent years.

Second, and related – the reason we are not getting the right calibre of MP is not because pay is too low. This is tied in to the idea that MPs’ salaries need to be competitive with those of top headteachers, police chiefs, hospital consultants, public sector executives and corporate leaders – otherwise, we’ll fail to attract people with ‘real life’ experience and will be limited to our current crop of universally derided professional politicians.

Which is odd – because professional politicians are a relatively new phenomenon. Go back sixty or seventy years, and MPs’ pay was much lower – in real terms – than it is today or will be from 2015. In 1946 MPs were paid a basic salary of £1,000, which is roughly £35,500 in today’s prices. And yet the House of Commons was replete with former soldiers (distinguished ones, not Iain Duncan Smith), corporate leaders, ex-miners and blue collar workers – people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, not fast-tracked advisers and apparatchiks.

The reason we have a professional political class, and the reason we don’t attract candidates from a wide background of experiences, is nothing to do with supposedly low pay and everything to do with party machines. The ever-growing centralism of the Conservative and Labour parties, combined with freakish party discipline, has meant that only obsessives who have spent years plotting their political careers have had a realistic chance of being selected to stand for parliament. Open primaries have nudged the door ajar, but the tolerance of constituency party autonomy and backbench dissent that once marked British democracy is now long forgotten – parties want the type of people who will toe the party line, and select candidates via processes that favour those who’ve been positioning themselves for years.

This blocks out the 99% of the population with better things to do than spend ten years plotting a route to Westminster far more effectively than a salary miles above the national average but still, supposedly, too low.

The final argument that needs addressing is that of the hard-working MP. They work so hard that they deserve to be paid more – so the line goes. I don’t doubt that MPs work hard – they do. Hours are long, constituents’ needs are never-ending, and no doubt there’s always a ribbon that needs cutting on a Saturday afternoon. It is a hard job, a tiring job, and a thankless job to boot.

It is also one of the most privileged jobs in the country.

Perhaps MPs forget, as they troop off to the lobbies at the sound of a late night division bell, that the job they are doing is one that millions of people around the country would give their right arms to do if they had the chance – if they could do so without having to run the reflexive gauntlet of party machines and grease their way up political ladders.

Instead they – we – are reduced to ranting in the pub or on social media, waving our arms at the TV news or just rolling our eyes and muttering, ‘they’re all useless’.

MPs are paid a healthy salary, but the real remuneration is in power. There are 650 MPs who get to decide on legislation – a vote denied to every single other person in this country. Sure, the corruption of our political system has invited hordes of lobbyists, financiers, FTSE directors and think tank wonks to formulate policy and law in advance – but the vote is in the Commons, and the voters are MPs. Individually they may not have the power to swing a vote, but collectively they do, and they could do so whenever they wished were they not so wilfully bound to party loyalty and personal ambitions.

The hard-working constituency MP is often virtue hiding vice. A hard-working MP is often busy helping constituents who have fallen foul of benefit cuts or the withdrawal of local services that are the direct result of the very policies that the very same MP voted for. Traipsing around the constituency fixing roofs and mending fences is a salve to the conscience of MPs who know they have sold out their constituents in Westminster, but still want to convince themselves they are ‘doing good’.

For example, I’m told that Francis Maude, one of the fiercest Tory frontbenchers, has been relentless in helping his Sussex constituents who are having their adult care funding withdrawn by the local council. Very good of him – but of course, if it wasn’t for the savage local government funding cuts he helped formulate and drive through, the situation wouldn’t arise in the first place.

MPs who spend hours, days, weeks, months sifting through constituency casework around rejected benefits claims and withdrawn social care funding should not bleat about deserving higher pay. They should first examine their own voting records and see whether they have been the ones who have increased their own workload. Did they vote for benefits cuts or conditionality? Then that’ll be why their constituents have lost their benefits. Did they vote through local government funding cuts? Well, that’ll be why adult care funding is being withdrawn. And opposition MPs don’t get off the hook – what manifesto did they stand on? Would that manifesto have had the same results?

There is a horrible culture of entitlement among the wealthy and the rich. In the private sector this usually equates to the notion that they are ‘wealth creators’; in the public sector it is usually based on the conviction that they could earn far more in the private sector; but when you reach the charitable sector and MPs, it is based on the idea that they are ‘doing good’ and should not be financially disadvantaged for it.

But most MPs are not doing good. They have collectively created the most discredited and despised parliament in memory. They vote in ways that worsen the lives of millions of people, and then claim that the time they spend helping those people manage the consequences justifies a pay rise – a claim that is downright offensive.

I said at the start this would be a few quick words. Now at the end, it clearly is not. But the hardworking MP deserving an inflation-busting pay rise is a myth that needs taking down properly.

And if any current MP doesn’t want to do it for their current salary – let me know, because I will.

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One response

10 12 2013
Walton Andrew

Completely agree with you. MPs are completely out of touch with the reality of life for the vast majority of people in this country. However, there were three MPs who only took the average wage of their constituents – Dave Nellist (Coventry, 1983-92); and the late Terry Fields (Liverpool, 1983-92) and Pat Wall (Bradford, 1987-90). Dave Nellist is now the chair of TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) and is still fighting for equality and socialism.

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