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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.