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recent memory, have been a time when it was modish to pretend that Britain was a land of opportunity where class was an outdated concept and poverty merely relative, but that time is over.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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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