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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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear