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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.