MPs have had a hard time of it. When the media aren’t dragging up allegation of expenses fraud or sexual crimes, then they’re busy making themselves look like blithering idiots. Something the media is only too happy to report on. The question is surely then: Why does this keep happening? Yes, clever people say and do stupid things, but it’s only an occasional thing. I can only conclude that the reason politicians can’t stop transferring their foot between a steaming pile of manure and their mouth is that they really are monumental morons! As the saying goes: Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach. Surely then, those that fail, legislate. The next question then is why does the role of an MP attract such poor “talent”, if such a term could ever be applied to an MP? And why do they keep getting elected?
Originally our politicians were unpaid, chiefly because they were rich and being a politician was seen as a public duty, so it was assumed that they would have another source of income. Later the system opened up to allow anybody to serve, so long as you were a man. Finally, virtually anybody could serve in parliament. Along the way, somebody must have though that having a large number of people who were not rich in a position of power was a big risk when it comes to people being bribed. The solution then was to pay them a salary then to keep them honest. The problem is, to me at least, the salary of an MP has always seemed rather arbitrary. Sure, once they receive their 11% pay rise they’ll be on approximately three times the national average wage. But is that the right amount for an MP, and if not, what is?
So, to recap. The question was why do we get such poor MPs, and the answer seems to be that we don’t pay them enough. That’s obviously controversial, to perhaps an explanation why might be in order. Any politician, from a parish councilor to the president of the United States needs to possess a singular quality over all others. Leadership. We’re not necessarily talking about evangelical leadership, having ten thousand people chanting your name and following you to the ends of the earth (not that it’s a bad thing.) No, this is the leadership that is practiced every day by managers, bosses, and teachers. Good leadership is about engaging your audience and getting them to buy into a vision and a belief that you are setting out. A politican could be a drug-addled alcoholic liar, but if they are able to inspire and lead, then they can beat just about anybody.
Not everybody possesses the skills necessary to be a politician, and from those that do, many will have no interest in politics and the political process. We now have a much smaller pool of people who are both leaders and engaged at some level with politics. I think that if you were to survey this group, you would find a shared characteristic of ambition running through them. Ambition means this group will likely have higher paying jobs, bringing us back to the issue of money. If the people who would make good politicians are expected to take potentially significant pay cuts then we find ourselves with a deliberately exclusionary system that favours those unlikely to succeed in the real world. Here is where we arrive at the long answer as to why MPs should be paid more.
At this point I would like to deal with the vocal group that will pipe up with the argument that a MP isn’t worth as much as a number of insert-noble-but-low-paid-jobs-here! Trying to compare the relative worth of a nurse, a teacher, and a MP is like trying to compare the relative worth of the ingredients when making a cake. It doesn’t really matter and if you change one then what you’ll end up with won’t be a cake. Is it fair? Probably not. It’s fairly easy to argue that nurses and soldiers etc deserve to be paid more looking at the issue from a perspective of natural justice. However, the relative worth of a position depends not on the role so much as the relative scarcity of the skills the position requires, coupled with the sources for demand for those skills. The skills required by a nurse are possessed by a relatively large number of people, while the number of places looking for those skills is primarily limited to the NHS. This means that salary offered is driven down. For a MP, we have already determined that the key skill – leadership is possessed by relatively few people, and the demand for those people is high. Any commercial venture is looking for leaders. As a result, the salaries on offer are naturally higher.
So what should an MP be paid? From next year MPs salaries will be linked to the state of earnings in the economy. I think this is the right approach, but the wrong measure since you are calculating the number using measures that have no real bearing on what an MP is worth. I have been told by people that are involved in politics already that a good MP should be working full time and then some. This sounds most like all the offices I have ever worked in where this is not real “going home” time. What I propose is this: We take an average of what all the middle to senior managers in the companies in the FTSE 100 earn, and pay MPs that. For the cabinet we do the same but take the average from the population of directors. Finally, for the PM, we pay the average of all the CEOs in the FTSE 100. To pay for the increased salaries in part at least, we can save money by using the economies of scale that come from moving the provision of all the purchasing services for MPs to a central system. Need a secretary? One will be provided. A second home? A flat will be supplied and furnished for you. Train tickets? You can book them through a central website, ensuring you get the lowest price. Individual expenses would then be reserved for things that cannot be bought centrally. This has the added benefit of removing most possibilities for major expenses fraud.
As a final thought, Margret Thatcher, perhaps one of the greatest Prime Ministers this country has ever had started out as a chemist. Imagine if we only elected people with real world experience rather than the career politicians. What would be possible and how much could we achieve.