Crocodile tears over salary recommendation
Eddie Ford thinks MPs should be accountable, recallable and live on a wage close to those they represent
Last week the subject of MPs’ pay was revisited. After the expenses scandal broke out in 2009, MPs outsourced the entire thorny question to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) - which became tasked with monitoring and controlling all aspects of MPs’ salaries and expenses. Problem solved, many optimistically thought. MPs could no longer be charged with voting themselves substantial pay rises, whilst public-sector workers’ pay was being cut in real terms.
Alas, Ipsa seems to have only made things worse. Far from cracking down on MPs’ pay, its main recommendation in a consultation published on July 11 was that from 2015 their salary should increase from £66,396 to £74,000, representing a rise of 9.26%, and be indexed to average earnings. A stark contrast to the 1% pay cap imposed on public-sector workers until 2015-16. Ipsa actually thought MPS might deserve as much as £83,430, but decided to recommend the lower amount because of the “current difficult circumstances” - something that will undoubtedly bring joy to the hearts of ordinary public-sector workers struggling to get by.
Ipsa also recommended that MPs’ pensions should be on a par with public-service employees; “resettlement payments” (and ‘golden goodbyes’) worth tens of thousands of pounds should be replaced with a more modest package; and there should be a tighter regime of business costs and expenses - ending, for instance, the provision for things such as evening meals and taxis after late parliamentary sittings.
Needless to say, Ipsa’s recommendations went down like a lead balloon. Party leaders, who are on double what ordinary MPs get, lined up to denounce the plans. David Cameron said the idea of such a generous pay rise was “unthinkable” - though he has so far refused to say whether he would personally accept any pay rise. Nick Clegg declared it was “about the worst time” imaginable to advocate a near double-digit pay increase for MPs and confirmed he would not take any increase. Sentiments naturally echoed by Ed Miliband, who challenged the prime minster to openly forego any pay rise too. As for the education secretary, Michael ‘Gradgrind’ Gove, he had no time for the “silly” Ipsa, which could “stick” its proposals. What a man of the people.
Ipsa refuses to budge, however. The organisation’s chairman, Sir Ian Kennedy, said that MPs should be treated like “modern professionals” and argued that his recommendations were “fair” because MPs’ pay had “fallen back” over the years. They needed to be “properly rewarded” for the job they did, he maintained - further adding that the expenses scandal had been the result of “too much” pay restraint. Presumably the poor things, being chronically underpaid, had no choice but to claim expenses for moats, porn-channel subscriptions, empty flats, second homes, chocolate bars, dog food, garden furniture, swimming pools, media trainers, etc.1 It is worth noting that Kennedy himself is paid £700 a day and works on average two days a week - equivalent to a salary of over £70,000.
There are some backbench Tory MPs who support Ipsa’s recommendations. Typical was Andrew Bridgen, who believes that politics will struggle to attract “high-calibre” people unless MPs are “remunerated sufficiently” or ‘incentivised’. Whilst accepting that he and his colleagues are never going to earn the sort of money they could make in the private sector - quite a sacrifice - he pointed out that MPs are paid about the same as a junior-school headteacher, meaning that “some balance” has to be restored . After all, he remarked, nobody wants parliament to be only for people of “independent wealth”, who treat an MP’s salary as mere “pocket money”. Similarly, the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, Mark Field, said MPs should “bite the bullet” of unpopularity and take the rise offered by Ipsa.
People like Bridgen and Field seemed to be in a tiny minority, with hardly anyone speaking up for a pay rise. But a survey of 100 MPs conducted by YouGov for Ipsa in January showed a different picture. Safely protected by anonymity, 69% thought they were underpaid.2 On average, Tory MPs proposed a salary of £96,740, the Lib Dems £78,361 and Labour £77,322. A fifth suggested that they should be paid £95,000 or more. And more than a third thought they should keep their final-salary pensions. They clearly think MPs’ pay has “fallen back”, as suggested by Kennedy.
However, the reality is that MPs have never had it so good. When David Lloyd George first introduced salaries for members of parliament in 1911, so that official politics was no longer just a hobby for the privileged elite, MPs were awarded £400 a year - which in today’s money is the equivalent of just under £40,000. By 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came into office, an MP was earning £9,450, which was still equivalent in real terms to £40,490 - very close in fact to the original pre-World War I salary. But today MPs are paid £66,396 a year, representing a sixfold increase in cash over 34 years and a real-terms rise of more than 50%. Which puts them in the top 5% of earners, the median full-time salary being just £26,500.
Of course, compared to other top-earners, MPs’ pay is very modest indeed. For example, the boss of Royal Mail, Moya Greene, is reported to be getting £1.5 million, including bonuses. The managers of Network Rail have each received 17% bonuses this year, despite missing their targets, and their chief, Sir David Higgins, received £677,000. Even the hapless Care Quality Commission gave its head £440,000 last year. If truth be told, most top executives would not bother getting out of bed for anything under a six-figure salary. And MPs in the UK are paid significantly less than many of their counterparts in other countries. In the United States the salary is £111,251, in Italy £112,898, in Australia £120,875 and top of the tree is Japan on £167,784. Maybe Bridgen and Field should relocate.
Anyhow, Ipsa’s review is now in its “public consultation phase” and, depending on the response to the proposals - overwhelmingly negative, of course - Ipsa has the rest of this year to change any of its recommendations.
The communist position on this matter is unequivocal. An MP’s job should not be a lucrative career option. What of the idea that you need high wages to attract “high-calibre” people? Quite the reverse: anyone who wants to be an MP purely for the money is by definition the sort of person you want to keep out of the House of Commons. MPs should live on a wage close to the people they are supposedly representing, receiving the average wage of a skilled worker, plus any legitimate expenses. A communist MP would unilaterally do that, irrespective of what Ipsa finally decided. He or she would take only such an average, handing over the excess to the party.
Interestingly the BBC has recently provided us with an example of how to operate as a workers’ MP in the shape of Dave Nellist, the former Coventry MP and supporter of the Militant Tendency, then the Socialist Party in England and Wales. From his election in 1983 to his deselection in 1992, comrade Nellist only accepted the average wage of a skilled factory worker in Coventry, which constituted 46% of his salary - equivalent to about £28,000-£29,000 nowadays. The remaining 54% was donated to the labour movement in order to “help the families of miners in the 80s, community groups, pensioners” - not to charities, as implied by the BBC coverage.3
Quite correctly, comrade Nellist believes public representatives should “share the pain and the gain”. That is, be affected just like anyone else by the decisions taken in parliamentary and council chambers - not live on a salary that insulates them from day-to-day problems like high food and fuel prices, for instance. Writing in The Socialist, comrade Nellist warned that “much of the protocols of an MP’s life, and the privileges lavished on them, are designed to suck them into defence of the system, so that (whether consciously or not) they feel more in common with the rulers than the ruled”.4
Fundamentally, this is a deeply democratic question. From the time of the Paris Commune onwards, working class organisations have demanded that elected representatives be paid no more than a skilled worker’s wage. This is not a modern-day SPEW or CPGB obsession. Not because we want them to live in poverty like medieval monks from a mendicant order, but simply because those representing working class voters in particular need to be continually reminded of how their constituents live and what their interests are - and, of course, the same principle applies to trade union representatives.
Just as importantly, MPs should be instantly recallable. As things stand now, there is no recall mechanism by which the masses can boot out individual MPs or for that matter bring a failed parliament to account. The result is only too well-known - we get to pick our MP once every four to five years and they get to do whatever they want in the intervening period.
However, we are confronted by the obvious deep-seated problem that parliamentarians and union officials have come to expect relative enrichment as their right and proper due. Hardly surprising though when they are receiving incomes and expenses commensurate with managers and small-scale owners of capital. Almost inevitably, working class MPs and union bureaucrats start to see themselves as above and beyond the reach of those who elected them - in this insidious way we see the “transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society”5
4. The Socialist January 19 2011
5. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p23.