Those who ply their trade within Westminster remain among the most beleaguered parliamentarians in the world today. In a political landscape mired by cynicism and mistrust, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Agency’s proposal to raise MPs’ salaries in Britain by £8,000 was received by most as ill-judged and offensive. In light of public sector pay freezes for the past two years, an increase to £75,000 per year for our parliamentarians prompted a predictably vitriolic response from the febrile fourth estate. Yet, equally predictably, the story is far more complex.
When placed within the context of a wider discourse on the role of parliamentarians and their previewed worth, it would seem that sober introspection is required on behalf of the electorate. Ian Kennedy, the chairman of IPSA has been accused of lacking political acumen, yet there must always surely be more to political intelligence than a mere appreciation for “good PR”. In an age where politicians have fewer resources than ever and yet must match record levels of expectation, we must ask ourselves whether we retain our cathartic pessimism towards parliament: often unsatisfactory, but a dependable absorbent for a nation’s negativity.
Deeper analysis of IPSA’s proposals shows that the changes would cost the public purse a mere £500,000 extra a year, as rises in salary would be largely offset by alterations to pensions, severance pay and allowances. This is a Faustian pact of, at worst, modest proportions. Westminster MPs remain undeniably underpaid as their Australian counterparts earn twice as much and US Congressmen are paid the equivalent of over £100,000 a year. Singapore is noteworthy in that it also pays its MPs the equivalent of over £100k whilst ranking first in the world for public trust in politicians and transparency of government policy, according to the World Economic Forum. (Admittedly this is a nation which has been described by writer Sue Ann Tellman as exhibiting “happy-faced fascism”.) Drawing from these examples, it appears to be axiomatic that by paying parliamentarians a more rewarding salary, greater efficiency and immunity to corruption are gained. Of the small handful of countries that pay their MPs less than Britain, only Switzerland stands out as one that displays similarly laudable characteristics to Singapore. Yet among the other countries, Spain is parsimonious in offering a salary of £27,000. Corruption is second only to unemployment on this nation’s political agenda.
There can be little sense in maintaining such a low paid legislature. Lloyd George knew this in 1911 when he introduced an annual stipend, diversifying parliament beyond the reserve of the wealthy and entitled. The age of the professional politician had seemingly begun, and yet over a century later we continue to show nostalgia towards philanthropic amateurism within parliament. This sentiment may be admirable on the one hand, but it is surely a misguided anachronism. Low pay for MPs results in a distracted and privately wealthy parliament. When the cost of running a constituency campaign is around £10,000, and many professionals such as lawyers and doctors would take a significant pay cut on entering parliament, the status quo remains, whereby becoming an MP necessitates considerable personal wealth. The predominance of the rich amateur politician is yet to be undercut. A more professional and diverse parliament is an aim listlessly championed by many, but the leaders of all the main parties have condemned the recommendations of the appropriate independent body.
As a consequence we have entered an absurd Dutch auction between our political parties. As Clegg denounced the proposals as “potty’” all parties are promising to deliver our national politics as cheap as the next. Whilst a YouGov poll shows that 69% of MPs feel the pay rise is justified, their leaders are unwilling to present the reasoned argument in favour of a rise. This however is no failing of our political elites; it instead represents a sad indictment of the frenzied attitudes taken towards politicians in which fear of reprisal results in necessary convictions being forsaken for what is deemed palatable.
The tropes of greed and scandal in Westminster have created a bashful cohort of MPs, 232 of whom operate under the spectre of an expenses scandal which occurred before they even entered parliament. The legacy of the expenses scandal, a consequence of underpaying our representatives, is not just a deep mistrust of MPs, but the creation of the very body whose proposals we now seemingly find so abhorrent. The punishment continues, but the true lessons from that scandal have not been learnt.
The political discourse remains one of cynicism and despondence. The Hansard society, dedicated to promoting parliamentary democracy around the world, found that MPs spend on average 69 hours working a week, excluding travel, and yet the motif of a half empty chamber (at times when MPs are too busy with constituency work to attend sessions) heralds moronic accusations of apathy. We want our politicians to be poorly paid and yet immune to bribery; come with real world experience yet have no “past”. Our politics is truly debased and hysterical.
Representative liberal democracy is, quite rightly, an expensive luxury. A rise in salary for our chastised MPs is not a reward, although such remuneration could easily be justified. On the contrary the proposals represent a significant step towards a more focused, professional, and representative parliament where the often inappropriate secondary incomes of MPs could be curtailed and personal wealth would no longer be a prerequisite for entering political office. Salaries of MPs are aptly shown by the global experience to shape not only the character of the political class but also the quality of a national legislature. Acceptance of IPSA’s proposals however is far from likely in a political culture imbued by frenzy, where public attitudes and the media which helps form them are so hostile to our representatives. The necessary cessation of cynicism remains unlikely at present. The road towards a healthier politics has been shown by Mr Kennedy to begin with a sober self-reflection on the part of the electorate. Liberal democracy does not come cheap.