Leader: MPs should be paid more but the whole system needs urgent reform

There is a sense of widespread disenfranchisement from a political system that people feel is corrupt and rigged against them.

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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.

The Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.