Sub Editor of Naked Politics
Following the expenses scandal of 2009, the Independent Parliamentary Standard Authority (IPSA) was established to de-politicise the toxic topic of MP’s pay. Well, as fool proof as that plan was, here we are again, questioning the relative value of our beloved politicians.
The proposed changes are cash neutral to the taxpayer. They include reductions in pensions, golden handshake payments and a long overdue shake up of the claimable expenses criteria – exactly what IPSA was set up to deal with. After two decades of real-term pay reductions, MPs have fallen behind benchmarked public sector roles that have seen annual increases in the same period. The independent assessment concludes that the time to redress the balance has come. The timing may be a point of contention, but if it is not accepted this time around, the gap will continue to widen and the requisite adjustment will inevitably swell beyond the 5-10% required today.
Unanimous acceptance and full public approval then? If only it were that simple…
Feckless party “leaders” and leadership candidates have fallen like dominoes, offering typically populist responses, for fear of public indignation. Worse still is the patronising assumption that we could never properly understand the situation. Sadly, they may have a point. The general consensus would appear to be that Westminster is full of vapidly disappointing hacks and the solution, perversely, is to limit the pay that is offered to attract the next generation of political talent. Chelsea fans will be delighted to learn that Jose Mourinho hasn’t adopted the same policy during his summer recruitment campaign!
This could be reported as a positive news story, with headlines reading – “MP’s pay finally catches up with public sector increases at no additional cost to the tax payer”. Unfortunately, truth is trumped by sensationalism in the world of entertainment politics. So instead the media runs with something more akin to “Evil Cash-Hungry MPs at it again!” fanning the flames of political disengagement and demonising MPs with inaccurate but emotive comparisons to destitute nurses, firemen, and anyone else who happens to fit the mould of universal admiration.
Perhaps the vast weight of media negativity goes some way towards explaining the notion that MPs aren’t worth what they are already paid, let alone more. Proponents of the narrative draw attention to the fact that pay would fall if market forces were allowed to work their magic. The supply of volunteers comfortably outstrips the 650 seats worth of demand. If politicians are such easily replaceable commodities though, why are we wasting money by paying them at all? Let’s have more nurses instead. We like those!
The issue there is that only posh old boys with no concept of the real world can actually afford to undercut their own potential. The lack of ‘ordinary’ folk in parliament isn’t the result of a snobbish barrier that can only be unlocked with a masonic handshake, but that capable achievers without the requisite financial backing are tempted away from politics by the promise of higher earnings elsewhere. If we want the brightest minds from a variety of backgrounds involved in the running of our country, we need to offer a competitive salary.
There is, of course, a much wider debate to be had around equality in general. Is it equitable for everybody’s favourite toff, David Cameron, to be paid six times the national average? Nicola Sturgeon didn’t seem to have an issue with receiving more than the Prime Minister, despite representing a party that professes to stand for equality. Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, shamelessly accepted an increase to a similar level, while many of his union members’ pay was frozen. The Head of Network Rail earns four and a half times that. The CEO of Centrica, thirteen times. The Head of BBC Radio, twice as much and the BBC Director General, three times. Numerous council chiefs, police commissioners and civil servants, that in any other organisation would be several pay grades below the PM, take home bigger salaries. He’s paid 25% less than Tony Blair was 10 years ago. So maybe he’s actually underpaid?
Some of the inequality is addressed through progressive taxation, but opinions will always vary as to whether that goes far enough. While idealistic lefties shudder at the disparity, the neoliberal right accept that inequality is an essential component of our increasingly meritocratic free market economy. Either way, helping those at the lower end of the income scale is where our focus should be, not on pulling down those at the top!