The Secret MP #7: Are MPs worth an extra 11%?

by The Secret MP on December 9, 2013

The Secret MPYou can call me Keith.

Though that’s not my real name.

But I am a Liberal Democrat MP.

I could be wrong, but I think that Ray may have been drunk when he left me a message on my answer phone the other night – in between expletives, he accused me of being, with varying degrees of cogency, in cahoots with the devil and a total disgrace, before declaring that how dare I accept an 11% pay increase when the likes of him and others dependent upon the public purse were having to endure pay cuts.

I didn’t call him back, instead I sent him an e-mail agreeing to write another missive for this blog.

So, what do I think about having a pay rise when so many others are having to endure a pay cut?

Well, obviously if I start to try to justify more money for MPs, it’s going to be a difficult argument to sustain, I’m not stupid, I realise, only too well that politicians are about as popular as rickets right now, and the idea of us having a pay rise during a period of austerity for everyone else (bar the bankers of course) seems totally wrong. I understand that, I know that at my next surgery, someone will almost certainly allude to it, and I’ll sit there and squirm, because it does seem embarrassing.

But, is it that simple?

Let me approach the debate in another way: I believe that politics is important, I believe that parliamentary democracy is the best way to organise society in a fair way. One only has to look this week at the way in which people have rightly lauded the life of Nelson Mandela because he was able to introduce universal parliamentary democracy to a nation where there was previously racist apartheid.

And, as a believer in parliamentary democracy, I recognise that Parliament must be filled with capable people who are able to articulate the will of the people either in the Commons itself through debate, or in the government or outside the government holding it to account. We want to see great minds in our legislature, people who are able to stimulate debate and provide the momentum for change and good public policy.

Do we have that in the House of Commons at the moment?

Well, quite frankly – no.

I sat in the House of commons Chamber last week for the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. I sat near the back under the gallery, together with a few other Lib-Dem Backbenchers and fellow Weebles. I’ve long grown bored with the antics that accompany the big set-piece events in Parliament, but, even by our own disgracefully low standards, what happened throughout Osborne’s statement and Ball’s response was outrageous. I used to justify it saying that a febrile atmosphere was part of our tradition and good for sorting out the men from the boys, after all, I’d suggest, no politician is going to risk entering the Chamber unless he has fully mastered his brief – but, I don’t adhere to that any more. It has gone beyond a bear pit, and is now resembling a toddlers party.

Last week as soon as Osborne got to his feet, the Labour back benchers started to allude to rumours about his drug taking – was it funny, no it wasn’t, drawing your finger under your nose, isn’t remotely funny, it’s childish.

Then, when Ed Balls got to his feet, the Tories responded by just shouting as many insults at him as they could -everything from ‘you’re a fat twat’ to mimicking him about his stutter and the fact that he rouges under stress. Was that funny? No.

Did any of that contribute towards a good debate on the economy – no. The debate was terrible. Osborne was able to continue to assert the three great big fibs that have underpinned his economic and political strategy – that it was all Labour’s fault, that austerity is the only answer and that they are succeeding in turning round the economy; whilst Ed Balls did little other than shout a lot about how unfair it all was.

It won’t help the people who will come to my surgery this weekend telling me how they are struggling to cope with the cost of living, before, invariably telling me that Parliament is a complete shambles and most politicians are a waste of space. And, when you consider the performance from all sides at last week’s Autumn Statement, it’s hard not to disagree.

So, what has this got to do with the proposals to increase MPs pay? Well, it’s this: if the payment received by MPs continues to be below that of comparable professions, that is Doctors, lawyers, head teachers, senior civil servants, then, the only people who will be interested in a career in politics are those who are either career politicians who know of nothing else; rich people for whom it doesn’t matter that the pay isn’t great; and, half-witted lobby fodder, who will happily sit in the Chamber and vote with their party because they know that they’ll be re-elected without too much problem.

Now, I’m not saying that increasing MPs pay will, in one magic swish of the wand, see Parliament once more filled with Edmund Burke’s and Winston Churchill (even then, for every Edmund Burke, there were probably 100 total burkes), but, I am suggesting that if voters do want to see a high calibre of person coming into politics, then, I’m afraid that we mustn’t baulk at the notion that MPs should receive a proper wage for the job they do. Because the alternative is a Parliament full of second rate politicians who do little other than sign their letters to their constituents then form themselves into a baying crowd every time the other side is trying to make a point, and that way the destruction of our democracy lies.

Now, I’m not expecting Ray and the others to agree with me on this, but, I do know that they share my desire to have a brilliant parliament that is adept at exerting the voice of the people over the government, and, I hope that they’ll agree with me that in this instance, the old cliche, of pay peanuts, get monkeys is probably true.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kiron Reid December 9, 2013 at 10:05 pm

A great column, very funny, very persuasive Except that the pay argument has been around about public service for years. The pay for public service has been put up a lot to try and improve support and quality – mostly under Tony Blair’s government and I believe because Labour genuinely thought it would lead to higher quality candidates / MPs / councillors / Council Leaders / Mayors / Chief Executives / Housing Association chiefs etc. However often it hasn’t – the same people or middling calibre of people do the job for more money, and many better people do it who would do it anyway because they believe in it or want to do the work. My impression is that only a few new talented people are attracted by the better pay (as opposed to opportunistic ambitious people who want the money or status).

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Ceri December 10, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I tend to agree. What’s more, it’s lead to greater inequality and resentment within public sector bodies too, which harms morale and performance.

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George_East December 9, 2013 at 10:16 pm

So far as I can see it, there are shed loads of people who are desperate to be MPs and that would probably be the case if you halved MPs’ pay. I am far from convinced you’d end up with a better calibre of person by paying £7k more. Indeed I doubt it would change anyone’s mind about the decision to go into the Commons.

If the concern is that you want to match salaries to the ‘higher’ professions (rather than pay a bit more) to encourage more people to go down a politics career path, then that is politically unsustainable – there is no way that the public is going to be prepared to pay six figures for people who they hold in abject contempt and who are in many cases little more than lobby fodder. The monetary rewards outside of politics will always be higher if that is what motivates you, that is the nature of things.

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Charlie_East_West December 9, 2013 at 11:08 pm

I agree with George.

Also – if you add in all the MPs’ perks, expenses, pensions etc – the current package is pretty tidy in the end.

£7k extra does nothing except stir up even more resentment against politicians and will give more contempt to the contemptible phrase “we’re all in this together”.

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Alx w December 10, 2013 at 7:10 pm

No problem with giving mps a pay rise in line with inflation. However the argument that you would get a calibre of mps is pretty ropey. The point about say a doctor being persuaded, makes assumptions that doctors would want to become mps after all that training and that it follows that they would be any good. I think you would find plenty fo good people out there who’s biggest barrier is related to a) location b) family commitments c) balancing fighting an election while holding down a full time job and finally d) the job security problem in that taking a 5 year break from some careers might not allow them to easily get back in. Hence being full of independently wealthy types, london based people, more flexibly employed people etc etc.

The strongest case for mps pay remains related to reducing the temptation, that ‘bribes’ and other forms of financial corruption. As long as someone earns enough not to have to worry about money, other factors are far more significant, perhaps the nature of the role is the real problem in attracting other kinds of people?

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