I’m a fan of Rupert Hawksley’s writing – and I don’t just say that because he’s a colleague. I’m somewhat less enamoured, however, with the work of Sir Peter Bottomley, the Tory MP and current father of the house. But on the subject of MPs’ pay they are both quite wrong.
The pair have, in the past week, made the case that MPs deserve a pay rise. Sir Peter described them as the “GPs of politics” and suggested they should be paid a comparable sum. “Doctors are paid far too little nowadays,” he opined. “But if they would get roughly £100,000 a year, the equivalent for an MP to get the same standard of living would be £110,000-115,000 a year.”
That is, at least, a measured case. He then went on to wreck it by whingeing about how it was “really grim” for some of his colleagues on £81,932, just as the government was preparing to snatch £20 a week from the pockets of the poorest Britons via the universal credit cut.
Hawksley argued that if we want better-quality people to become MPs – and my goodness we could use that – we have to pay them better. Not to the extent of top lawyers or bankers, which would be neither possible nor desirable, but better, perhaps along the lines of Sir Peter’s suggestion.
This argument isn’t uncommon. Watching the stumbling and incoherent attempt by the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi – this government’s idea of a safe pair of hands – to defend the teachers’ pay freeze before the BBC’s Charlie Stayt, it was hard not to feel at least some sympathy for it.
But would chucking him and his colleagues an extra £30,000 or so yield the desired results? Or would it simply hand the current mediocre lot an entirely underserved bung? I confess, I fear the answer is the latter.
Britain currently suffers from a shortage of many things, but not of politicians. There has always been an ample supply of men and women keen to put their names forward come election time, even in constituencies they have no chance of winning. The victorious ones tend to hail from the same sort of places that city law firms and banks recruit from, according to an informative tome on MPs’ backgrounds that you can find in the House of Commons library.
Around one in five Labour MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge, which hasn’t changed much since 1979, and more than four in five are graduates, which has increased markedly. For the Tories, the Oxbridge figure had been trending down before settling at around a third in 2010, where it has more or less stayed. The proportion of graduates in their intake more generally is similar to Labour’s.
These are, as a rule, people with career options. They could easily have chosen money. They chose politics, like teachers choosing education and nurses choosing healthcare, even though there are many options with better remuneration and less grief attached. These professions are vocations.
As an aside, consider the identities of the people who create a lot of the grief that makes the jobs of teachers and nurses – challenging and highly skilled roles both – unnecessarily difficult and who could change it but don’t.
There is another reason for not bumping up MPs’ pay, and the recent conferences held by the big two parties clearly show it. They live in a bubble. Making them more wealthy would only add to their dislocation from the constituents they are supposed to serve.
Having enough cash to comfortably cover your bills insulates you from the very real worries and fears that are part of day-to-day life for the majority of Britons. Paying the mortgage, managing the car loan and the credit card, keeping the children fed and clothed, covering the cost of Christmas? An £82,000 salary provides considerable headroom above that.
It is notable that among the fiercest Tory opponents of the government’s cruel universal credit cut was a group of former work and pensions secretaries, all of whom had close personal experience of working with people on the breadline.
Why weren’t there more ordinary Tory MPs among their number? Are they uniquely cruel? Moral degenerates without conscience? Perhaps, in some cases. But in others it might, at least in part, be because they lack an understanding of just how bad the cut could make things for their low-income constituents.
Life on the breadline is something beyond the experience of most of them. Economic privilege is baked into their lives. Some 41 per cent of Tories, for example, went to fee-paying schools, against 7 per cent of the wider population. None of this serves to excuse their ignorance. If they were doing their jobs properly they would educate themselves on behalf of the constituents they represent. But it might help to explain it.
If Sir Peter is right that it’s terribly hard for them to get by on £82,000, maybe that’s a thoroughly good thing. Pushing them into a higher income bracket isn’t going to help them gain an understanding of the impact of bad policy making.
To get better MPs, we need to look more closely at a system that all but guarantees the election of people like Sir Peter, who has never faced a serious challenge in his Worthing West seat throughout his long career. We need to raise questions about how parties compile their shortlists. We need to vote the bad ones out. We don’t need to increase their pay.
If they want more, perhaps they could take a stab at doing their jobs better. Perhaps they should follow the example of our teachers, who have to clear more fences than the average steeplechaser to secure the modest uplifts available through moving up the scale.
Performance-related pay for MPs? Now there’s an idea I think people could get behind. What’s good for the goose, hey Sir Peter?