It was with genuine interest that I read Tom Mitchell’s article, “Why our MPs need a pay rise”.
I found it even more interesting that the picture which adorned the article was a depiction of the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act in the House of Lords. Indeed, there has been little need to “attract” Members to that chamber through financial remuneration since, historically, many sat by right of birth (and, arguably, many of today’s life peers find themselves sitting on the red benches because of privilege they themselves have enjoyed since birth). The Parliament Act was passed to address a constitutional crisis, and sought to establish the formal dominance of the House of Commons over the other place. One of the other provisions of this Act was to pay MPs a yearly salary of £400, in some ways ending the assumption that MPs had other means of income and going some way in enabling those from non-conventional backgrounds to take a seat in the Commons.
This “professionalization” of the Commons acted as a watershed in furthering the democratic nature of British politics. However, arguing for an ever-increasing pay packet for today’s politicians is, in my opinion, misguided. The view that a greater remuneration package is good for democracy is unfounded. And to suggest that the current basic salary of £74,962 (around three times more than the average salary in the United Kingdom) does no more than attract the “landed rich, a few extreme ideologues and the unintelligent” is, frankly, insulting – to the MPs and to ordinary working people. In this way, the author of the original article is spot on: this pay rise would be riotously unpopular.
Comparisons to the public and private sectors are intriguing. The Telegraph recently reported that those working in the public sector have enjoyed salaries between 3 and 6 per cent higher than those working in the private sector over the last decade. Of course, the author is correct in pointing out that some public sector workers earn good salaries – using the example of an NHS consultant whose starting salary (after usually around 15 years combined undergraduate and postgraduate training) matches that of the MPs. But I am unclear whether or not the author is suggesting that MPs salaries should be brought in line with the bankers he talks about, or even the barristers who he suggests earn in excess of one million pounds per year. If the author’s main argument for increasing salaries of those elected to represent us is based on attracting the “right person” – and it’s my understanding that this is the main argument – then I think it’s myopic of him to purely suggest increased financial incentives. Otherwise, does this argument not extend to all of those in the public sector?
Should the NHS consultant he talks about be given a pay rise, whose job entails a huge, albeit different form of, responsibility? And what about those people who find themselves nearer the bottom of the income ladder? Surely we don’t want “unintelligent” nurses, teachers, firefighters, carers, police officers, paramedics or engineers. God forbid they should have to interact with the MPs which the author wants placed on a pedestal.
Being a Member of Parliament is, and should be, an honourable venture which attracts bright-minded, passionate individuals who are representative of their communities. And herein lies the rub: having a sharp mind is one thing and, by goodness, we need sharp-minded decision-makers in our Parliament and Government. But we need sharp-minds in all areas of public life, as well as those working in the private sector. To suggest that a salary of £75,000 per year fails to attract the right person is insulting and is does a disservice to those other very intelligent, self-motivated and diligent decision-makers, like our nurses and teachers, who have to survive on a far inferior wage. There remain major disparities in wealth in the United Kingdom and income inequality is rising. To grant MPs a further pay rise whilst many people working in the public and private sectors have suffered a real terms pay-cut over the past decade would serve to re-inforce unjustifiable inequities which permeate through our society.
Becoming an MP should not be incentivised by promises of financial gain. That’s not to say MPs shouldn’t be adequately paid for what they do: I wholeheartedly accept that it is a stressful and demanding job. Rather than trying to attract the would-be bankers or barristers, the “profession” of politics should be reserved for those who are willing to fight for better communities and a better country, motivated and rewarded by the change they bring to the people who put them in that position in the first place.