Make MPs less "moaty": we want professionals in Parliament, not wealthy hobbyists

It’s understandable that in this febrile, post-expenses atmosphere, MPs have come over all bashful and money-shy. But we want a political profession that's open to everyone, no matter what their means - not just the wealthy who fancy a nice office in cent

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. 

Let's make our MPs a little less moaty. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.