Comment: Don’t pay MPs a penny more
Although it can never be said in public, there is a consensus in professional circles. MPs, we are told, need to be paid more.
It is considered one of the great political unsayables: a truth recognised in private which can never be uttered in public, like drug law reform or an amnesty for illegal immigrants. This is not confined just to the political class. You find this view among many professionals and businesspeople. It is common among that most select and self-serving of groups: people who are paid a lot of money.
For a management consultant or a banker, it seems absurd that an MP is paid the same salary as a spotty graduate in their own profession. Since the era of Thatcherism, low-and-mid-level wages have stayed frozen, bolstered by credit and benefits, while top salaries rise stratospherically. So it seems increasingly absurd that someone elected to represent the public should earn a comparatively modest amount. This is what massive executive salaries do to us: they create an arms race of income demands across society.
But granting MPs their wish for a substantial pay rise, such as the £9,000 proposal expected from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), would put them on the wrong side of this divide. It is imperative that MPs are of the people, not above the people. They should not live in gated communities or have darkened car windows. They should live on the same streets as everyone else and buy their paper from the same newsagent. If they live like the rich they will have the concerns of the rich. If they live like an ordinary member of the public, their personal experience will cement their professional obligations. The same is true, incidentally, for journalists (few of whom earn as much as MPs). Instead of paying MPs more we should seriously consider paying them less. MPs' pay should be pegged at the average wage, with London weighting for their time in Westminster.
Their current salary, £66,396, is a healthy sum of money. Many people in this country would give their right arm for it. The idea that it is somehow insufficient is laughable. The fact so many MPs consider it too low shows they are spending too much time with businesspeople and not enough with ordinary workers.
Critics say that the low salary means 'only the already rich' will consider becoming an MP. If this were true, 'only the already rich' would be able to become car mechanics or plumbers. It is possible to lead a decent life on £66,396. You have to be worryingly disconnected from the world to believe only those with a private income could survive on it.
Others claim that the low salary discourages the 'best people' from becoming MPs. Many senior public servants are on £100,000 or more and would be loath to take a pay cut. Executives at local housing associations, for instance, are typically far above this level. They are unlikely to take a pay cut to enter the frontline. This is very minor problem. We will have to endure without their skills. It will not be a tragedy for the British way of life. But while we are on the subject, we should take a very close look at senior pay levels in the public sector, just as we do in the private sector, and ask if we are approaching the problem from the right perspective.
The purpose of becoming an MP is to improve people's way of life. It is public service. It is not for people who want to become filthy rich. The pay should be enough for a decent life. It should not be a motivating factor. Anyway, the main obstacle to getting talented, relatively-normal people into politics is that it is a career which robs you of your privacy. This is a much harder problem to solve in an open, accountable democracy. There is no easy answer to it.
Others (usually MPs) argue that keeping pay low means they will always be tempted to go work somewhere else, for more money. Having met quite a few MPs, I seriously doubt they could make more money elsewhere. Their own sense of their skills is typically over-inflated. It is telling that when they do go into other work after politics they tend to rely on their contacts book and knowledge of the political process, rather than their other much-publicised skills.
Many MPs work harder than we give them credit for. It happens behind the scenes, but constituency case work is the great unsung dignity of politicians. They do not all do it. Generally, the ones in safe constituencies do the least while those in marginals do the most. You suddenly hear the word 'casework' during general elections, as analysts try to work out an MPs' chances of getting re-elected. But in the course of the political year it is rarely mentioned. When you do meet members of the public whose MP took on their case they are almost always hugely impressed and thankful. It is enough to give you faith in the constituency system.
This behind-the-scenes work is not recognised by the public. We are reaching quite a dangerous point in our dislike for politicians. This knee-jerk hatred for elected representatives has a nasty, undemocratic strain to it. It is certainly poisonous to the functioning of a free society. Even those of us who question MPs' talent and who have serious misgivings about the working of the political system should be concerned about where it is taking us.
The passing of a substantially higher salary for MPs could be pivotal in the declining relationship between the public and their representatives. The granting of a £9,000 pay rise amid continued austerity and a cap on public sector pay rises would be so patently immoral, so utterly out of touch and so arrogant and self-serving that it could prove a key moment in the public's exasperation with Westminster.
Ipsa should bear this in mind when formulating its recommendations. And if they recommend a rise, MPs should have the good sense to vote it down.
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