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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.