Laurie Penny on the worth of our representatives and the cost of democracy

How hard a person works is not and never has been proportional to a person’s salary.

How much is a politician worth? According to MPs, the answer is “about four times as much as the average worker”. This month, an anonymous parliamentary survey found that most MPs wanted to see their £65,738 salary rise to roughly £86,250 – an increase of 32 per cent, putting them squarely in the top 5 per cent of earners. That’s before you include the second homes, travel, subsidised meals, perks and entertainment that continue to cost the rest of us millions every year. As most of us struggle with plummeting wages and living standards, the more interesting question is: “Why aren’t there riots in the streets?”

In case you’ve been out of the country or washing your socks for the past four years, here’s some context: in 2009 every major political party in Britain was rocked by an expenses scandal that led to a nationwide crisis and helped kick off a series of street protests. Here we are in 2013, and not only are the same politicians still milking the system and getting away with it, they’re actually asking for a large pay rise.

Meanwhile, as social security is cut to starvation levels, the very rich will be enjoying a 5 per cent tax cut from April. By this point, people like me who point and squawk at social injustice for a living have repeated phrases such as “it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us” until the words begin to lose all meaning. By this point, nobody’s pretending any more.

There may, in recent memory, have been a time when it was modish to pretend that Britain was a land of opportunity where class was an outdated concept and poverty merely relative, but that time is over. Most of us know far too well that we’re living in a staggeringly unequal society, one where the gulf between rich and poor is growing wider year on year. Parents have begun to resign themselves to the idea that their children will grow up to be poorer than them; young people leaving school are gently abandoning the idea of a stable home, a secure job and a decent wage. Why do we continue to accept this situation? Why – let’s be frank – isn’t Parliament Square on fire?

We put up with it in part for the same reason that our politicians feel it entirely appropriate to request a 32 per cent pay rise in the middle of a double-dip recession: because of a new morality of money and power that justifies inequality. Since this government was elected in 2010, the right-wing press has pumped out a torrent of propaganda declaring that those on benefits are “shirkers”, whereas those who are rich and powerful deserve their wealth, because of their “hard work”.

Most people defending a salary rise for MPs and large bonuses for City workers do so using the disclaimer that bankers and politicians “work hard”. The test that has decided that a banker works 20 times as hard as a teaching assistant has not been identified, because it doesn’t exist.

Undoubtedly, our members of parliament work extremely hard. So do nurses, teachers and call-centre workers. So do the police officers who this week are having their starting salaries cut by £4,000 to £19,000 a year. And so do the single parents and tax-credit recipients whose vital social security payments MPs have voted to slash. How hard a person works is not and never has been proportional to a person’s salary: it is, as today’s politicians understand very well, proportional to their power and privilege. We don’t like to talk about power in this country, though; instead, we talk about “hard work”.

You don’t need an in-depth grasp of post-Fordist economics to get this. The single mum sobbing in the benefits office may or may not have had the time to read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom but she has internalised its logic, and so have the rest of us: the idea that the free market, despite all evidence to the contrary, rewards everyone justly and therefore we all deserve what we end up with.

Right now, when politicians speak of “workers” and “shirkers”, they mean “rich” and “poor” – and they know which side they’re on. The logic of work and power is turned on its head. Our leaders and the superrich are praised as “hard workers” but if someone else is poor and powerless, they are told it’s their fault because they didn’t work hard enough, even if they are manifestly pulling double shifts and raising a family alone.

The logic of this might not hold for much longer. Eighteen months ago, when riots raged in England, the kids in hoods smashing up the high street listed bankers’ bonuses and MPs’ expenses among the reasons for their disaffection, though it was said that these young people just really, really wanted a new pair of trainers.

This year, the desperation is deeper and there are no Olympics to distract us. How long can the logic of inequality, the logic of “workers” and “shirkers”, withstand public rage?

Editor's Note: The print version of this column contained an incorrect reference to a 1996 UN report. This has been removed.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.