There was a surprisingly mixed reaction from commentators recently when it was revealed that around 70% of surveyed MPs thought they should get a pay rise of 32%. While most of us struggled to pick our jaws up off the floor in staggered disbelief, there were also those who seemed to think the MPs had a point.
According to the Telegraph it was “perfectly respectable to argue that MPs’ salaries need to be increased if the country is to attract the best talent to Parliament, and that the current level (on top of the heavy workload) is putting good people off”. And Blairite blogger, Dan Hodges, writing in that same paper argued with an apparently straight face that the only thing that was scandalous about MPs’ pay was that, at £65,738, it is ‘scandalously low’.
To be fair to the Telegraph, their editorial concluded that, whatever the arguments, it was ‘not the right time’ for MPs to get a pay rise when real-terms cuts on benefits are being imposed by the Government.
But even in taking that position, they were missing the point entirely. ‘Bad timing’ is not the reason why paying MPs approx 4 times the average income in the UK would be disastrous, (as well being unacceptable to most voters). It would be a disaster because it would mean that our elected representatives – whether they are members of the government, or ordinary backbenchers who serve on the committees that are supposed to hold them to account – would be even less able to identify with the lives of Ms and Mr Average than they are already.
The problem with the debate that takes place whenever MPs’ pay is discussed is that it polarises opinions between two basic camps:
- those who don’t think very much of MPs, and, after the scandal over excessive expenses claims, see them all as a bunch of freeloaders, and
- those who don’t think very much of MPs but who think the problem is that you only get what you pay for: “No wonder our MPs are mediocre”, they say, “when we pay them such a meagre salary.”
Rarely do I hear anyone make the glaringly obvious point that the more our MPs are paid, over and above average earnings, the less able they will be to do their jobs well, by definition: If we accept that a major part of an MP’s job is to understand and represent the concerns of their constituents, it makes no sense at all for our MPs to be living in relative luxury. It doesn’t give them a fighting chance of doing their job properly.
This becomes particularly relevant where MPs and Ministers can afford to ‘opt-out’ of using basic public services, choosing instead to use private healthcare, send their children to fee-paying schools and avoid public transport. It seems utterly obvious to me that only when our leaders and decision-makers are all dependant on the same public service provision as the rest of us will we see those services become the very best that they can be.
I am not saying that politicians, or people in general, are incapable of empathy or imagination. I’m just saying that, rather like trying to ‘feel’ someone else’s tooth–ache, it’s never quite the same as feeling it for yourself.
There is a world of difference between, say, knowing that some hospital wards are unsafe places for the elderly, or that discipline problems make some schools unsafe places for children – and actually having your own mum in a failing hospital, or your own child in a failing school.
The key difference is the degree of URGENCY you feel about doing something about it.
The same applies, of course, to living standards: If you’re able to live comfortably within your means and have a secure, warm home, you just might not be able to appreciate fully the desperation of a constituent who lives with her kids on a lawless estate and has no money left for the gas meter by mid-week.
It is this failure, by our politicians, to appreciate the day-to-day difficulties faced by ordinary people that is what so desperately needs fixing. It is what lies behind, for example, the almost criminally divisive pronouncements we have heard lately about ‘strivers and shirkers’ – or the government’s recent decision to restrict disabled people’s mobility payments to those who cannot walk more than just 20 metres (about the length of two buses).
So this is why MP’s pay matters. I’m not suggesting that all MPs should be forced to live in abject poverty – or even be forced to survive on the Minimum Wage (which often amounts to the same thing) – but I do think it important that their salary is closer to average earnings, currently £26,000 – and that they should have no second (or third!) incomes – if we are to have any chance of seeing them pass legislation that is based on reality.
To those who say that people with families and mortgages wouldn’t be able to afford to live on that salary, I would ask them to consider how ordinary people manage, and suggest that parliament might at last have an incentive to do something about the scandal of low pay in the UK, and the profits made by utilities companies and others at the expense of the consumer.
To those who say that we would not be able to attract the most able people to be MPs, I would say that even at current salary levels we do not attract the most able people, and I would question what motivations we consider to be desirable in a public servant: selflessness or personal greed?
I’m also sure that we all know some very highly qualified people who are currently finding it impossible to get work that in any way utilises their skills, and who would jump at the chance to do something of real value.