Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday 14 December 2013

Why the MP pay rise "scandal" matters - a lot

I wrote a piece last weekend arguing that MPs should have their pay rise. As a result of this I got a number of invites onto various TV and radio stations to explain my reasoning and argue for something that virtually no MPs (nor very few commentators) were willing to.

As a result of this I have engaged with a number of people and also listened to a fair few members of the public calling these shows to express their opinion. One thing that is abundantly clear is that there is a toxic atmosphere around the issue of MPs' pay. I had a fair bit of reaction to my stance on Twitter as well and the vast majority of it was also hostile. Incidentally the number of people who seemed to assume I had something personal to gain financially from taking the position I have was quite depressing; it seems the idea that someone might just believe something without directly benefitting from it themselves is somewhat outmoded.

The more I have been mulling this over the more concerned I am getting. Ever since the expenses scandal the subject of MPs and money has been a fraught one. But this goes further back. Much further back. The whole reason we had the dysfunctional expenses system which tacitly allowed MPs to claim in a way that substantially augmented their salaries is because Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s turned down a report similar to the IPSA one today on MPs' pay and instead allowed the nod/wink system to flourish. Her reasoning was that the public would not stand for a large one-off pay rise for MPs. It was the wrong time. The idea it would ever be the right time for this is proven by history to be a falsehood.

So MPs' pay has been a difficult issue for a long time. But let's take a step back a minute. MPs are in a very special position. They are elected by close to 100,000 constituents. They are supposed to have gone through a process, both through initial selection and then later election that makes them the choice of those 100,000 people to represent them. They then are supposed to work very hard at representing those people and also holding the government to account (or if in government administering it in the interests of the entire country). It is an incredibly important job and it requires acute judgement and the ability to make very difficult choices well on behalf of constituents and more widely the whole country. They vote on whether we should go to war, how our health service works, how the poorest in society are treated by the state etc. etc. etc.

But if we cannot trust MPs to settle something very simple like their basic pay and working conditions for themselves then it does not take that much of a logical leap to start to question whether they will be able to take these other sorts of decisions well too. The pay issue is gone. That ship has sailed. We definitely do not trust them on it. There is almost unanimity on this, not least from MPs themselves who recognise the political reality. So what about other issues? Why would we trust them on anything else if we essentially think they are a bunch of shysters on the make and out only for themselves?

I should stress that despite the fact that I do think our politics is somewhat broken, I do not think MPs cannot be trusted to decide important issues. But it is clear that the majority of electors do think this if the response to this story in the last week is anything to go by. Indeed the fact the story lasted almost a week (and is still unresolved - incidentally I expect a deal will be stitched up to "reject" the pay rise) shows how strongly people feel about the issue.

I very much fear where this will ultimately lead. It is an obvious next step once MPs cannot be trusted on pay for them not to be trusted on all sorts of other things.

We elect them through the ballot box to represent us. If they mess up we can kick them out a few years later. If we need to strengthen this democratic link through e.g. some sort of parliamentary recall mechanism (and I think we should) then fine. Various other reforms are needed too as I have written about endlessly in the last 5 years. But there needs to come a point where we trust them to get on with it.

This is not all one way traffic. MPs themselves need to earn the trust and after the expenses scandal it is understandable that the public is wary. But if we cannot regain some sort of trust for politicians then our democratic system will eventually break. I cannot predict on what issue(s) it will eventually founder but when it does we will have a constitutional crisis the like of which we have not seen for several hundred years.

The MPs' pay "scandal" of 2013 is a harbinger of much worse things to come if we are not careful.


Matthew said...

This is a thought-provoking piece. I'd say two things - 1) saying 'we trust you to decide on everything except your own pay' is not obviously idiotic - one would trust a Judge to trust others but not him/herself, 2) the fact is since 1979 (or mid-80s) the abuse of expenses by MPs seems serious and widespread enough to not trust them to set their own pay, so that ship has sailed.

liveotherwise said...

Very thought provoking. I've come to the realisation this week that I really don't trust the political class or the system, and it was the political point scoring of the foodbank debate that swung it for me. I'm beginning to think Russell Brand is right, and I say that with deep displeasure, I've missed only one election that I recall of my voting life.