What is it about the idea of MPs getting paid more that has so many of us spitting homemade Daily Mail headlines? Sure, the expenses scandal reinforced in concrete a public image of MPs as financially fiddly moat-owners that goes right back to William Hogarth’s lurid caricatures of political perversion. But as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Committee faces scrutiny, even from within Parliament, for recommending a £10,000 pay rise for backbenchers, you have to wonder why pay increases for workers in broadly similar professions never attract that same level of vitriol.
As it stands, backbenchers make £66,000. Nick Clegg has spoken out against an increase that would up this beyond £70k and has rejected his own, hypothetical, new and improved salary. It’s understandable that in this febrile, post-expenses atmosphere, MPs have come over all bashful and money-shy. It would take a brave member to defend a healthy pay rise for him or herself when most of his/her constituents are paid far less, and those who are paid more fall unthinkingly into the consensus view that really and truly, your MP should be an amateur; in politics purely for love.
Representative democracy is an expensive luxury. And it seems all the more luxurious when it’s possible to be elected an MP and never set foot in the Commons again, unless you happen to feel like it. But as indulgent as our political system may be, MPs need to be seen as professionals rather than wealthy hobbyists. The aim should be a chamber full of well-paid representatives, who have no need for that extracurricular company directorship, union sponsorship, whatever. Cleansed of any outside influence and sharply divided along ideological and party lines, these representatives would be worth their healthy salary. But an ideal world, where politics is relevant, argumentative and dynamic - where it is elemental public policy conflict - would require a cessation of public cynicism.
That level of cynicism stems from a perception that MPs don’t have much expertise, or do very much. Armchair brain surgeons or gentleman civil engineers wouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence. So why do we not ascribe the same level of professionalism to those mandated to decide how the country should be run? Low salaries make way for a chamber brimming with people (mostly privately educated white males) who can afford to be there, yet still feel hard done by because they could be making so much more as a lawyer or company boss. Perversely, increasing MPs’ pay would have the effect of reducing their moaty-ness.
The problem is that in order to restore, or perhaps create, an idealised version of democratic, representative politics, you’d need to engineer a generation of “clean” MPs. The expenses scandal bunch would have to become a remote, Hogarthian spectre; the likes of Elliot Morley and Jim Devine turning into grotesque engravings from an earlier age. The simplest method of achieving this is to pave the way for the new generation with money. MPs need to be paid perhaps not quite as well as lawyers or company executives, but almost as well. The quid pro quo there is that if they’re going to be treated as professionals, they have to behave as professionals. This means turning up to work, having no outside business interests at all and adhering to a mandatory code of conduct.
The new, intrigue-free politics would make for some fairly slow news weeks at magazines like the New Statesman. But if dullness means reliability and even respectability then it can’t be such a bad thing.