How much should MPs get paid? The truth is, in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. An entire country debating the remuneration of 650 public servants; £65k per annum? Higher? Lower? Do I get a Brucie bonus? It is a tiny droplet of mist in the vast ocean of the UK’s finances.
You might say that, in times of austerity, in times when most people are feeling the squeeze, in times when other public servants are being clobbered with pay freezes, it is perverse for MPs to get such a pay rise. You might say its importance is highly symbolic. If I want symbolism, I will read some Verlaine. I am interested in the reality of how the UK is governed.
And the reality is that, on the whole, the UK is governed pretty badly. The direct results of this failure are austerity, the squeeze, the pay freezes. So, X a year already represents a gross waste, in many MPs’ cases. And X + 10% will be a marginally grosser one. To argue about the precise level of X, seems to me a futile exercise based on subjective criteria – the central of which appears to be “how much do I make?” It is also a dangerous diversion from the real reform needed.
MPs are in a position to make a difference in people’s lives, if they do their job properly. So, I would like to advance the contentious notion that how much we pay our MPs is not the issue. The way in which they are remunerated for failure is.
Let us imagine that MPs’ reward consisted of two elements – a low basic salary and a performance related bonus. We already have an established culture of setting all sorts of targets; for reducing child poverty, tackling unemployment, growth in the economy, crime rates, inflation, average earnings, mortality rates, educational success. All of these indicators are set and then promptly ignored. What if they were linked to the reward of those in charge? It is not such an alien concept.
If we managed to eradicate the ridiculous situation of our elected representatives moonlighting for outside interests, treating public office as if it were merely an inconvenient way to get the portcullis on your business card, and that cost us a tiny bit more money, would we seriously mind? If we managed to guarantee a full, spirited and informed debate on education or welfare, rather than a small minority of conscientious people making speeches to an empty chamber, and that cost us a tiny bit more money, would we seriously mind?
Would we mind so much if the 650 people in question got a very generous bonus for making the country in which we live a demonstrably better place? Would anyone care that they made two hundred grand a year if crime rates plummeted, everyone’s standards of living rose and homelessness became obsolete? We must commonly agree the things that would prove they are doing a good job and link them to their reward.
This is where it gets tricky, however. Because the truth is, we are not sure what we want from them; what makes a good MP. We wish them to be independently minded, as long as they don’t rebel against the party we support. We want them to be supremely experienced “in the real world”, while having no past. We ask that they pass liberal legislation which does not interfere with our daily lives, while acting in a draconian way against whatever group we happen to despise that week. We demand that they be brutally honest and above reproach, while keeping the ugly side of governing to themselves. We want them to live like paupers, but be completely untouchable by bribes.
No other group faces such competing demands coupled with such close scrutiny. So, let us get rid of the notion that it is an easy job. Like any other job, it is a very easy one to do badly. Unlike most other jobs, doing it badly can have severe consequences for millions. The healthy thing to do, for our democracy, is to focus on what it takes to do it well and how we put the right people in place. If that happens to cost a little more, so be it. Let us address voter apathy, low turnouts, candidate selection, party whipping, outside interests and the influence of lobbying. If we do that, the issue of fair remuneration will become much less contentious. If we don’t, then whatever level the salary happens to be set at will still be a legitimate target for criticism.
It is easy for a pay rise to become the focus of anger and much of the media has done an excellent job of blowing the dog-whistle, without any deeper critical enquiry. It is easy to mount a campaign designed to pick on an already despised group of people – many of them fairly despised. It is rare to find a political issue on which we all agree superficially. So, you can tut and roll your eyes at a particular figure, but ask yourselves this: if this campaign is successful and the IPSA-proposed rise does not become reality, will anything have changed? Will the economy grow any faster? Will a disabled person receive fairer treatment? Will fewer women become victims of rape? Will the parents of a child living in poverty be able to feed it Nick Clegg’s symbolic moral stand?