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.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.