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

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.