MPs can ask for higher wages, but they can't appeal to the market to get them

Parliamentarians' wages aren't set by the free market, so it's no use appealing to it for a raise.

MPs wages are not subject to the normal vagaries of the labour market.

Despite the fact that when people think of their own salaries, they think in terms of experience and skills – "I'm doing a difficult job, I should be paid more" – in fact the bulk of a wage is made up of the far simpler criteria of supply and demand. You can be as experienced as you like, but if a hundred other people with similar experience would do your job for less pay, the wage is going to decrease.

There are always people who would be an MP for no pay. In fact, there were, for two hundred years. The in-kind benefits of being an MP – the power, the authority, the membership of an elite club – were enough to convince people that it was worth their time. So too, of course, were the ample opportunities it gave to make money in less salubrious ways.

The problem is that if you pay nothing for a job, then you only get people who have a source of income on the side. That was fine while politics was a rich person's game, but with the rise of working-class representation, it became more problematic. Early Labour MPs were often paid for by trade unions, but by 1911, the first salaries had been introduced.

In a way, these salaries were there to attract the best talent, it's true. But the decision wasn't one of labour economics. It was more a question of democratic morality: assuming we want people without an independent income to be MPs, what standard of living do we want to provide for them?

That is still the question which we ask today. For all that MPs like to compare their salaries to other jobs – they earn less than senior civil servants, or than the best head-teachers, or footballs – their salaries are not set by the same process. If they were, they'd be due a wage cut, not an increase.

It's hard to tell exactly, given that voters have to elect someone every election, but there certainly seems to be an oversupply of potential MPs. Every marginal seat apparently contains at least two people who would be good MPs, for instance. If we were to run parliament like a business, that oversupply of eligible candidates would suggest that the wage was too high, not too low.

There is, however, the problem of corruption. The lower an MP is paid, the more open they are to advances from people who earn more than them. That's not just corruption in the form of bribes and kickbacks; it's also the more subtle corruption that comes from wanting to please someone who can take you out for a meal which costs more than your rent, or split a bottle of wine older than you.

Of course, if MPs want to argue that that's the reason they should have a pay rise, good luck to them. It will be interesting to see the first person who stands up in front of the cameras and admits to being corrupt because they aren't paid enough – and even more interesting to see their first re-election campaign.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage