Never mind a pay rise, let’s stop paying our MPs to fail

We wouldn’t mind what MPs’ salary was if they were making the UK a demonstrably better place. Alex Andreou makes the case for performance-related pay in Westminster.

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?

The 200+ new MPs elected at the 2010 election together in Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era