Very little in British politics is more cyclical than debates about the right of MPs to take on second jobs. Back in 2015, when he was still the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband proclaimed the need to “settle” the issue of second jobs “once and for all so we remove any suspicion that MPs are working not for their constituents’ interests but someone else’s interests”. Yet here we are, six years later, having the same conversation.
It is ironic that, in a time when many Britons are working two or more jobs to make ends meet, we should be discussing the issue of second jobs for our politicians. However, that’s where the similarities end: while low-paid workers toil away in the insecure gig economy, for MPs a second job is more likely to entail a lucrative directorship than driving a taxi for Uber.
The issue has come to the fore once again after Conservative MP Owen Paterson broke lobbying rules on behalf of two companies that paid him over £100,000 a year. One of the companies in question won government contracts for dealing with Covid. Paterson was accused of “egregious lobbying” and resigned as a Conservative MP on 5 November after a botched attempt by Downing Street to avoid him being hit with a 30-day House of Commons suspension.
The Commons standards committee is now considering whether sitting MPs should be barred from taking on paid consultancy work on behalf of commercial interests. According to an analysis by the Guardian, more than 30 MPs could be affected by a change in the law. Over a quarter of Conservative MPs hold a second job compared with just three Labour MPs.
A common retort from moonlighting MPs is that second jobs give them valuable experience of the “real world”. Sometimes this rings true: several medically trained MPs put in shifts in overstretched hospitals during the pandemic. During the bleakest months of last year’s lockdown, MPs who returned to the front lines were a valuable source of information to members of parliament about the situation on the ground. Moreover, according to the BBC in 2018 the average time worked per week by MPs with second jobs is 4.6 hours, which isn’t an awful lot.
But not all second jobs are equal. And nor can it be plausibly said that a second job necessarily keeps an MP in touch with the ordinary person in the street. What valuable life experience was former transport minister Chris Grayling absorbing during his £100,000-a-year work as a “strategic adviser” to a port operator? Or Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell in his work for firms including Ernst & Young and Investec, for which he was paid £182,600? And why is “valuable life experience” so often synonymous with lucrative consultancy work rather than stacking shelves at Tesco or working in a call centre?
If parliament doesn’t resemble wider society – if the progeny of the private school system take up too much space on the green benches – then we should open up the professions in general to working class talent, because nepotism isn’t confined to politics. However, the idea that we will get a more balanced and representative House of Commons by allowing MPs to moonlight in directorships is for the birds.
That said, if we’re going to ban MPs from taking on consultancy jobs for extra cash then we should probably pay them a higher basic salary. To be sure, MPs are already paid relatively well: their basic annual salary is £81,932 (putting them in the top 5 per cent of earners). However, as Jonn Elledge has argued elsewhere in these pages, in order to attract the most talented people to politics we must offer a rate of pay comparable to jobs in the private sector. As Elledge writes, “If you insist that public wages should be kept down, but private sector ones allowed to soar away, the inevitable result will be a drain of people, talent and ideas from state to industry.”
The problem, of course, is that the notion of paying MPs bigger salaries sits uneasily with the prevailing mood in the country. It has become a cliché to point out that various breaches of public trust – the Iraq War, the global financial crash, the expenses scandal – have contributed to a widespread anti-politics sentiment. It also happens to be true. Few things garner a round of cheap applause as easily as deriding the “Westminster village” and the “professional politicians” who inhabit it. The recent enthusiasm for referendums (first Brexit, now net zero?) was arguably spawned by this growing willingness to disparage representative democracy.
Such bluster directed at the “political class” is sometimes defined as populism. Yet somewhat ironically, professionalisation is broadly accepted in wider society. Indeed, in other areas of professional life we see increasing specialisation. We don’t expect teachers, aeroplane pilots or even sports stars to be moonlighting in other roles. We want them to focus on their jobs because multitasking is overrated.
Perhaps it’s time that politics caught up. Our problem in the UK isn’t a surfeit of professional politicians. Representative democracy requires an admission that many of us probably don’t possess the sufficient hours in a day to scrutinise the things that must be scrutinised. I want the person I elect to use their time – the time I don’t have – to wade through legislation and turgid policy papers and to vote accordingly. Some may disparage this as rule by professional politicians; yet it is preferable to the chimera of “direct democracy”, a system that invariably degenerates into rule by activists and obsessives.
Prohibiting MPs from taking on paid consultancy work is the easy part. The hard part will be persuading the public to start treating MPs as the specialists that they are and remunerating them properly. Democracy isn’t something that should be done on the cheap.