BY STEWART SLATER
While perhaps not quite as certain as death and taxes, that Britain will get exercised about MPs’ remuneration is still an extremely good bet. The periodic pay increases Parliament votes itself (on, to be fair, the advice of an independent body) are guaranteed to raise an eyebrow and spark a round of muttering in homes across the land. As we are treated to another round of headlines about MPs’ outside earnings, the Father of the House, Peter Bottomley, has, perhaps boldly, suggested that many of the problems in Parliament would be solved if we merely increased MPs salaries.
At first sight, MPs are not badly paid. Their basic salary of £82,000 ranks them in the top 3% of British income distribution and that is before the various expenses they can claim, including the well-known practice of engaging a family member as one’s “office manager”. Internationally, however, their remuneration does not look too generous. A member of the U.S. House or Senate receives about £129,000, a member of the Bundestag gets roughly £102,000, while a Singaporean MP can expect £106,000. At first glance, therefore, MPs might appear underpaid. Since there is not a free market in politicians which would resolve the anomaly (MPs in the U.K. do not generally move to Germany to work in the Bundestag to improve their earnings), the only solution is to raise MPs’ earnings to a more representative level.
However, that MPs in the U.K. earn less than their foreign counterparts does not tell us very much. It is possible that rather than the British being underpaid, their foreign counterparts are actually overpaid. “Fair Value” might be somewhere between the various levels, it might be somewhere below the British level, we cannot tell.
If international comparisons do not get us very far, then surely the notion that higher levels of pay will attract better candidates is more convincing. We want clever people in Parliament and they generally are highly paid. By setting MPs’ salaries where they are, we are creating a situation where those whom we want to go into Parliament will have to take a pay cut to do so. If you pay peanuts, after all, you get monkeys.
However, writing off those who earn less than £80,000 as monkeys seems somewhat uncharitable. An Oxbridge graduate with a First who decides to go into teaching may well be exactly the sort of mind we might like to see in Parliament, but, on the current pay-scales, they will earn a maximum of £41,600 in the state sector. Going into politics would almost double their salary. While people might decide that the hassle involved demands a premium, it is a stretch to suggest that suitable candidates will not be attracted unless that premium is 100%.
The people who currently do not enter politics because of the salary will generally be highly paid professionals, such as those in the City or the Law. However, in the 2015 Parliament (the last for which figures are available) 14% of MPs were lawyers compared to 0.2% of the population as a whole (figure for England and Wales). How many more do we need? A cynic might wonder why it is so often professional knowledge workers who believe that politics requires more professional knowledge workers.
That someone earns a large salary is a sign that they are good at a particular job, but it is no guarantee that those skills will be useful in politics or government. While it is a seductive notion that success in one domain leads to success in another, one need only look at the recent experience of our American cousins to realise that this is not always the case. Indeed, it may be that we over-value the role of intelligence in government. As the Jewish proverb puts it,
Generally, if you wish to argue that MPs should be paid more because we will be governed better, you need to show that the people attracted by an increased salary would do a better job than those currently in office, and that the role of an MP allows them to.
If the former is dubious (“I would rather be ruled by the first 1000 names in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard” as the American journalist (and, to be fair, Yale man) William Buckley put it), the latter is exceptionally hard to prove.
MPs broadly have three functions. They scrutinise legislation, they hold the government to account and they assist their electors in constituency matters. While this sounds important in theory, it runs into the reality of Britain’s majoritarian system which has frequently been described as an elected dictatorship.
On the government side, the whips’ power of patronage generally means that MPs provide little real scrutiny of the government’s legislation – certainly not to the extent of voting against it, and holding it to account often translates as asking a helpful question at PMQs. On the opposition side, the situation is even worse. Lacking power, its sound and fury signifies nothing in the real world. The government uses its majority to vote down proposals and amendments and ignores unhelpful findings by Select Committees. In terms of real world outcomes, backbench MPs produce very little.
MPs can have a direct impact by passing a Private Members’ Bill, but these are comparatively rare, only the first seven in the ballot being given a day’s debate and a minority becoming law. Since 2019, 7 have reached the statute books, roughly 1 for every 74 members eligible to propose one.
If MPs produce little in the way of substantive achievement, it should not surprise us that so many of them find alternative employment for themselves. Sir Geoffrey Cox is currently in hot water for resuming his legal career after leaving his position as Attorney General, working up to 35 hours a week for his clients. The implication is that by doing so, he is not performing his duties as an MP. However, there is no evidence for this proposition, it is merely an assumption. His recent statement that he “regularly works 70-hour weeks” would leave him roughly 35 hours for his Parliamentary duties and, as a leading QC, we might reasonably expect him to be extremely good at the rapid assimilation of information. There has, at time of writing, been no constituent who has come forward to show that Cox’s work patterns have had a concrete impact on his life nor is there any sign that had he spent more time in Parliament, any specific legislation would have been improved by his intervention.
For, while some MPs claim that their position is a full time job, the behaviour of their peers suggests otherwise. Nor is it just the venal Tories with their snouts in the trough. According to Guido Fawkes, Sir Keir Starmer has billed £113,000 for legal work since he joined Parliament in 2015, continuing to provide advice in 2018 and 2019 when he was not only an MP but also the Shadow Brexit Secretary. In March this year, The Guardian praised David Lammy for his handling of a racist caller to his phone-in show on LBC. At the time, Lammy was not only MP for Tottenham, he was also Shadow Justice Secretary. Despite having two roles, therefore, he was still able to find the time to earn, according to The Spectator, £33,000 for a radio show.
In truth, in the British system, it is hard to support the notion that serving as an MP is a full time position, since ministerial office is, itself, another job. Frontbenchers are expected to spend considerable time fulfilling their duties, and are remunerated for it. Indeed, in recognition of this, until 1926, an MP promoted to ministerial rank was expected to resign his seat and fight a by-election, to allow his constituents to signal their approval of his taking on an additional role. That we no longer do so is not a sign that ministerial office is no longer a job, it is a sign that we accept that other positions do not reduce an MP’s ability to fulfil their function.
If neither in practice nor theory do we treat being an MP as a full time job, then that should have an impact on how much we are willing to pay for the role. One area where we can ascribe value to an MP’s activities is in their constituency surgery work where they defend their electors against the failings of the state. In this, they effectively function as super social workers, but a full-time senior social worker with no management responsibility earns about £40,000. While we might wish to pay more than this to reflect the other functions parliamentarians perform, we should also reflect the fact that the role does not seem to require their full attention.
If we reduced MPs’ salaries to this level (which still ranks in the top 30% of earners), but in recognition of the current practice, made it clear it was not a full time role, numerous advantages would accrue. Worries about attracting the right calibre of MPs would be assuaged as the pitch would no longer be “Stand for Parliament and see your income decline”, it would be “Do some extra work and get paid for it.”, not entirely dissimilar to joining the TA. By forcing politicians to function in the real world on a regular basis, MPs might well gain a greater understanding of the effects of their policies rather than, to a greater or lesser extent, being protected by the Westminster bubble. The losers from this arrangement would be professional politicians who have joined the PPE to researcher to SPAD conveyor belt and have not developed any other expertise but a reduction in their presence in Westminster might not be an entirely bad thing.
At some stage in these arguments, the words “But Singapore…” usually march into sight, however there are significant differences between the two systems. While the Red Dot’s government has, undoubtedly been successful, we have seen above that its MP salaries are not particularly out of whack globally. Where Singapore is different is in the salaries it pays its ministers. They are set with reference to the top 1000 earners on the island and currently start at just over £500,000 per annum.
Singapore has also been ruled by the same party since independence and it currently holds 83 of the 95 elected seats in Parliament. If it wishes to parachute a successful executive into ministerial office, it can do so secure in the knowledge that he will stay there as long as he or the government wish. In Britain, by contrast, there is a reasonable chance that a political career will involve a (potentially lengthy) period in opposition. We might wonder whether raising MPs salaries to attract those who have been successful in other domains only for them to moulder on the back benches out of power is really worth it. Particularly since we have the House of Lords which lends itself perfectly to the task of getting talented outsiders into government. Gordon Brown, for example, appointed the former First Sea Lord, Lord West, as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Home Office and ennobled him 10 days later.
If we wish to emulate Singapore, raising MPs’ salaries is not the way to do it.
At the last election, the three main national parties all stood in over 600 seats and, of course, not all people who make the Candidates’ List get to run for office. It is not clear therefore, that there is a lack of potential MPs. In cases of over-supply we would expect prices to fall. Let it be so with MPs. With 61% of respondents to a recent poll saying their attitude to politicians was “F**k them all”, it might even help them.
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He has been published by Areo and Spiked, and writes (when he can think of something to say) on Medium as Stewartslateruk