MPs vote to maintain the 'John Lewis list'

Jim Moody contrasts MPs' present money-grubbing to what communists call for

A yawning gap continues to grow between MPs and those they supposedly represent. And it is not only a democratic gap, as when most MPs supported sending British troops to Iraq while a majority of the population opposed doing so. The divide between elected legislators and their constituents grew deeper last week over money.

On July 3, MPs voted against doing away with their £24,000 yearly additional costs allowance, which they can spend on consumer goods, purportedly for second homes. This allowance is known as the ‘John Lewis list’ because John Lewis store prices are used as benchmarks. As the leading proponent of the change, prime minister Gordon Brown was deeply embarrassed as 146 Labour MPs, including home secretary Jacqui Smith, 32 other ministers, and deputy chief whip Nick Brown, trooped through the ‘no’ lobby to keep this parasitical form of additional income. What a nakedly greedy and self-serving issue upon which to rebel against the prime minister!

In addition, MPs voted to raise their own basic salaries by 2.25% to £61,820 a year. This, combined with their malleable expense allowances, puts MPs on a yearly income three times higher than the average wage (which itself is, of course, far above what the average workeractually gets). But, of course, MPs’ receive even more than that. There is the annual staffing allowance (set at a maximum of £102,650), the pension provision for MPs’ staff at 10% of their gross salary (ie, up to £10,265), an incidental expenses allowance (ie, up to £22,193), a communications allowance (up to £10,400), and a car mileage payment. Those eligible also get a London supplement of £2,916. And IT equipment worth about £5,000 is centrally provided for each MP.

In an interesting contrast with MPs’ own money-grubbing, the staff allowance that is supposed to cover employing three full time and one part-time staff values their work at less than £29,000 pa each. A recent report points out that this may be yet another, though this time illicit, source of direct income for some MPs: “Almost 50 MPs have refused to tell the parliamentary authorities exactly what their office staff do and how much they are paid from public funds ... [they] failed to meet their obligation to submit copies of their employees’ contracts of employment, which detail their working hours and salary scales. The failure to provide the details means that the House of Commons authorities have no idea whether the MPs are using their £90,000 staffing allowance properly - or if they are paying family members for work they have not done” (Independent on Sunday July 6).

Traditionally, the House of Commons only starts its debates in the afternoon, so the platoon of lawyers-cum-MPs it has always had, and still has, could go to their morning jobs in the law courts and then draw a fat payment for attending parliament later in the day.

MPs have been paid since 1911, following Labour Party pressure. Some say that paying what to the vast majority of the electorate are princely sums is essential to get men and women of the calibre necessary for the job. But this is the specious argument. After all, most MPs are merely voting fodder, time-servers of capitalism who look forward to their knighthood or peerage. Of course these parliamentary ciphers have their noses in the trough; most are only concerned with number one.

What extreme democrats have argued for at least 150 years is that an MP should receive no more than the wage of the average skilled worker. Communists demand that this form of public service should not be paid at a level that attracts those who merely see it as another well paid profession for a careerist. Anything else is a form of corruption.

It is important that workers’ representatives, and not just in parliament, remain in touch with those who electd them. A rule of ‘no more than the pay of the average skilled worker’ should apply to the pay of trade union bureaucrats as well as to MPs. When Militant MPs were in parliament, they did just that: they stuck with this honourable working class tradition. While they were MPs, what they received beyond the average wage of a skilled worker was donated to ‘the movement’.

Such an approach is rejected out of hand by the sole Respect MP, George Galloway, for example. It seems that no-one but the CPGB has called him out over his outrageous demand that he be allowed to do as he like as a parliamentary representative of Respect, including on the key matter of an MP’s pay. Our stance on the question is not related to Galloway’s specific political positions, some of which are indeed execrable. What is important is that a working class representative, if such he or she be, from a working class organisation (eg a Communist Party) should take political direction from his party. In other words, that a working class representative should be directly accountable to their party in all matters.

Part of the democratic accountability of a working class representative means taking no more than the average skilled worker’s pay: this is not negotiable. It goes to the root of what such a representative is for, the job for which the party has selected them. Not to launch a career in parliamentary politics, be a maverick, or ride hobbyhorses. No, class-conscious MPs go into the belly of the capitalist beast, its parliament, to wage class war in a coordinated manner according to what the party as a whole decides tactically, based on its overall perspectives and strategy.

Of course, we would never want a communist MP’s functioning to be impaired by lack of finance: quite the opposite. This is why secretarial assistance for an MP has to be provided; but that person would be a comrade paid for by the party, not the MP. In the same way, the parliamentary authorities should provide each MP with office accommodation and equipment, all to the same, high standard. All must be kitted out equally with respect to telephony, computers and aids for the disabled for those that need them.

When it comes to accommodation for MPs from faraway constituencies, there is no reason in principle why MPs should not be housed in government-provided quarters. After all, judges who stay away from home overnight are provided with official residences; no-one ever seems to raise questions about the expense of keeping such houses on standby for this purpose. Arguably, they are probably used much less than official houses for MPs would be. Taking another example: police officers who live alone can use section houses provided by their force; and there are still married quarters in some police areas. As is well known, those in the armed forces have been provided with married quarters for many years. Serious objections to the quality of some of this housing provision (though not by the judges, as far as I know) does not detract from the principle that accommodation should be provided as of right for such public servants, given the nature of their jobs and duties.

As to the costs of travelling between parliament and an MP’s constituency, this too should be paid centrally by the parliamentary authorities. Under the current set-up there are single-member constituencies, and clearly there are legitimate costs of running it, including MPs’ visits to their constituencies that ought to be met.

However, it is precisely because a communist MP is responsible primarily to the party that all of an MP’s costs incurred in, for example, travelling on party business must be met by the party. These expenses need to be under the control of the party, not managed on a freelance basis by the MP. In fact, should there be several communist MPs in parliament, the party might want some to travel around the country in an agitational or propagandist role. But it might well also need some to stay in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster to keep an eye on directly parliamentary matters. This is something the party must have responsibility for, as it directly relates to how the working class party operates in a disciplined manner; it cannot be a matter that is left up to individual MPs.

How communist parliamentary representatives will work is indeed moot. Although they will use initiative in carrying out party tasks, they will not work completely on their own initiative: for example, in determining priorities or, quite possibly on occasions, even how to put over a case and what stresses to give a particular question.

In short, the party demands control of how its MPs do their political work. It is an extension of the work of the whole party into a very public, and hostile, arena and a crucial area for our propaganda. It is not at all acceptable for a communist to be elected as an MP and then to go off and do their own thing. The only reason that they will become communist MPs in the first place is that they are to represent the party’s views in parliament. That will be their party job.

Communists in parliament must represent the party first and foremost, not the electors who gave them their votes. Election may be the manner through which class-conscious voters get a working class representative into a council or parliament, but that does not mean that the party and its representatives are then to be bound by antithetical ethics or morals of the bourgeoisie’s electoral system.

Our democratic stance on this question is designed to be part of our class becoming a class for itself, making itself into the ruling class. We therefore issue the call as a general rule that democratically elected representatives in all spheres should receive only the average pay of a skilled worker. Workers make up the overwhelming majority of the population and their representatives should have no expectation that they are going to lord it over those they are supposed to represent by coining it in.


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