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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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