Politicians are frequently at the bottom of indexes of ‘most trusted’ individuals, and occasions like the expenses scandal, cash for peerages, and Partygate have hardly improved their standing. It was likely with this in mind that Sue Wilson wrote the piece Looking for a well-paid job? Be an MP! in Yorkshire Bylines. Wilson is a respected campaigner, and a great writer. But, on this occasion, I have to disagree with what she has said about being an MP.
MPs’ pay in context
To rebut a few key points from Wilson’s piece:
“First, let’s talk pay. As from April 2022, the basic pay for a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons is £84,144 per annum. Compared to average UK earnings of £33,000, that’s none too shabby. But the good news doesn’t stop there.”
Being an MP is certainly a well-paying job. But they are hardly among the super-rich. £84,144 is comparable the pay of a headteacher, a chief superintendent, or a newly qualified solicitor. Most legislators in comparable democracies are paid more, and UK MPs are the second lowest paid in the G7.
“Not only can you expect an above-average pay rise each year, but you get to vote on it yourself. No nasty bosses trying to supress your wages, and your real bosses – the British public – have no say at all!”
This statement is again, technically true. But it is misleading. MPs’ do not decide their own pay, this is the job of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Agency (IPSA), which was set up after the expenses scandal. Unlike with other public sector pay review bodies, MPs typically feel unable to interfere with IPSA’s findings, so do little but vote through their recommendations each year.
Hard-working members of parliament
“MPs, on the other hand, don’t all work full time, with many able to hold down other lucrative employment, and not discouraged from doing so.”
This statement underestimates the hard work which the majority of MPs do. Most work six days a week, Monday to Thursday in parliament and Thursday to Saturday in their constituencies doing casework. Sessions in the House of Commons often finish at 7pm or later, and MPs’ frequently have back-to-back meetings throughout the day.
This is also before factoring in work that MPs do as ministers, shadow ministers, or in committees, all of which add workload onto an already busy week.
Most MPs also have no second jobs. While Wilson cites the £17.1mn figure, this is inflated by high earners like Boris Johnson and Sir Geoffrey Cox. Even at the peak of the second jobs scandal, fewer than one in six MPs had second jobs.
“In the year ending 30 September 2022, the amount claimed by MPs was £135,810,637.87 for a total of 123,858 claims, and it’s not untypical for a single MP to claim hundreds of thousands of pounds on expenses.”
Once again this is misleading. A quick review of IPSA shows the majority of MPs’ expenses consist of staff salaries. Wilson does fairly point out that MPs’ representing London constituencies can claim for a second home in London, and that MPs’ can claim for heating bills while these spiral across the country. But, largely speaking, these expenses are largely pretty reasonable.
Why defend MPs?
But why go into this detail rebutting a piece on an online news site? Why go out to bat for such a universally despised group of people?
It is not because MPs are inherently good people, but because, like Sue Wilson, I worry about the quality of our MPs. Many can range from well-intentioned buffoons to power-hungry narcissists, and a large proportion of our MPs should not be let anywhere near our laws. Not to mention the fact that nearly 10% of them are under investigation for sexual misconduct.
Becoming an MP is notoriously difficult. Even before being selected as candidate, they will need to have spent years building relationships within their local and national party. They will likely need tens of thousands of pounds saved to get elected, and need to be able to have thousands of hours of personal time available to run a campaign. They are subjected to hate on the doorstep and online, and many suffer breakdowns in their personal relationships for the sake of an election they might not even win.
Someone who has the financial and social capital to become an MP will likely be able to find a better paying job in the private sector. Choosing to take the path to parliament will involve weighing up a number of factors, including the financial settlement and the social benefits of being an MP.
Lowering pay and conditions isn’t the answer
A decade of poor public sector pay has contributed to vast numbers of staff leaving professions like healthcare and teaching. It is certainly frustrating that MPs have had a different treatment to these professions. But the implication of Wilson’s piece, that MPs should also have worse conditions, will only lead to the same problems.
By Wilson’s metrics, the most virtuous politicians would be those like Rishi Sunak, who are independently wealthy enough to avoid claiming money from the public purse.
The worse we make the job of an MP, the less likely any reasonable person will be to consider becoming one. When toxic MPs already exist who abuse their staff and threaten fistfights with activists, the last thing we need is to pressure the ‘good apples’ into leaving the sector.
Applying the mentality of austerity to political pay will only cause the same problems in Westminster as the austerity Westminster created has cost the country. Instead of rating politicians purely by how much money they cost us, we should figure out how to create a healthy workplace in parliament, so that MPs and their staffers have adequate conditions to deliver value-for-money for their constituents.