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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.