This article is from the upcoming New Statesman, out on 4 July. To purchase the full magazine - with our signature mix of opinion, longreads and arts coverage, plus an essay by John Bew on Syria, a critical appraisal of Vermeer by Craig Raine and columns by Laurie Penny, Rafael Behr, Will Self and Mehdi Hasan - please visit our subscription page.
The suggestion that MPs’ pay should be increased, during this protracted and bitter period of austerity, seems like an idea drawn from the Louis XVI school of public relations. Average wages are not forecast to return to their pre-recession level until 2023 and, after a two-year pay freeze, public-sector salary rises have been capped at 1 per cent until 2016. If any group is to be exempt from such privation, how many will agree it should be MPs?
After the expenses scandal of 2009, MPs ceded control over their pay to an arm’s-length regulator, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). David Cameron declared at the time: “We say that from now and into the future, MPs should not vote on our pay, our expenses, our pensions, our terms of service . . . Isn’t that an essential part of restoring faith in parliament, in politics, in this House of Commons, that all of us care about?” What he did not anticipate was that Ipsa, unbeholden to public opinion, would suggest that MPs’ pay should rise, not fall. When the body publishes its recommendations later this month, it is expected to propose a 13 per cent increase in MPs’ basic salaries from their current level of £66,396 to £75,000. MPs also have generous pension allowances.
For fear of incurring the wrath of voters and the tabloid media, all three of the main party leaders have distanced themselves from the report. Mr Cameron has argued that the “cost of politics” must be reduced, Ed Miliband has suggested that any increase in pay should be pegged at 1 per cent and Nick Clegg has described, with his usual verbal elegance, the prospect of a rise as “potty”. Some MPs have even suggested that parliament should strip Ipsa of its responsibilities in this area. Yet, privately, most recognise the case for reform. A survey of 100 MPs conducted by YouGov on Ipsa’s behalf found that 69 per cent thought they were underpaid, with an average salary of £86,250 proposed.
Any assessment of MPs’ pay must begin by acknowledging that, by historical standards, they are not underpaid and that they already earn vastly more than most of those they represent. In 1979, MPs were paid £9,450, the equivalent of £40,490 in real terms. Their pay has since risen by more than 50 per cent, compared to an average increase of 37 per cent. The median full-time salary in the UK is £26,312, putting MPs comfortably in the top 5 per cent of earners.
Yet if parliamentarians have less cause for complaint than some suggest, the case for an increase in their pay remains a compelling one. The average MP now works 69 hours a week, excluding travel, with much time spent on constituency casework. British members are paid significantly less than their counterparts in Japan (£165,945), the United States (£108,032), Australia (£120,875), Italy (£112,898) and Canada (£99,322) and less than the average GP (£88,920) and far less than the typical BBC executive.
Should MPs’ salaries remain frozen at their current level, the result will be an even narrower political system, the preserve of the trust-fund class, the wealthy and the entitled. It was in an attempt to avert this fate that David Lloyd George introduced an annual stipend of £400 for MPs in 1911, describing it is an allowance for those “who cannot be here because their means do not allow it”.
Today, for those without inherited wealth or lucrative business interests, the obstacles to becoming an MP are becoming more formidable. As the former Labour general secretary Peter Watt recently wrote of parliamentary selections, “If you can’t afford to take a couple of months off work, pay for accommodation and travel, abandon your family and pay for your own materials you are screwed.” Add to this the estimated £10,000 cost of running for parliament and higher pay begins to look like nothing less than adequate compensation for what is or should be a hugely demanding job. It was this consideration that led Commons officials to encourage MPs to treat their expenses as a de facto second salary, creating the conditions for the scandal uncovered in 2009.
If an increase in pay is to be sold to the public – and it will have to be at some point – it will only be acceptable as part of a wider set of measures to improve democracy and accountability. In return for an increased basic salary, MPs should relinquish any significant outside interests and devote their full attention to legislation and to their constituents (many of whom are in desperate need of it). The bloated House of Lords, whose 760 members are able to claim a tax-free daily allowance of £300 for “clocking in”, must finally be reformed and replaced with an elected senate. All 92 hereditary peers should be abolished. And all parties must give greater thought to how to enable more working-class candidates to stand for parliament, including the possibility of a public allowance for those without the necessary means.
Our politics are debased and our culture is hysterical. The public is no longer merely sceptical of MPs’ motives; it is cynical about them. And fewer and fewer people wish to become members of a political party. There is a sense of widespread disenfranchisement from a political system that people feel is corrupt and rigged against them.
If we are to have a democracy that is truly worthy of the name, it is time to recognise that we will need to pay for it.