The Political Class

Many an evening spent in the London homestead involves a bit of high-octane debate between myself and two far more qualified and intelligent individuals, those being my ever resilient girlfriend, and old friend and flatmate. I fairly consistently land squarely on the opposing side to both of them, and although it can be lonely on logic and rationality mountain, I do my best to drag them forth from the muck of primeval superstition and falsehoods in the which they dwell.

One of the things that annoys me about these affairs is never being able to remember how we got into them. We aren’t an organised debate club so it had to happen organically, and I suspect it has a lot to do with my boring habit of endlessly droning on about current affairs in about as unpopular a fashion I can. However else were we talking about the intricacies of UK politician’s pay and societal status? Over a well-executed (not by me) rendition of a Jamie’s (logistically impossible) 30-Minute Meal, we conversed.

It goes without saying that politicians, particularly members of the House of the Commons, are the subject of much scrutiny and scepticism. It might even be fair to say that the average person doesn’t have a great amount of patience or respect for them. Admittedly they make life hard for themselves sometimes, be it incompetence, corruption or scandal, but I think the British public give them a pretty hard riding. Myself emphatically included.

Get ready to disagree with me, but the long and short of my argument was that we should pay them more, let them enjoy a few perks and, if only deep down inside, respect them a bit more. Under a few conditions of course, including that there should be far fewer of them, MP’s and Lords, as why on Earth do we have nearly three times as many national legislators as the USA, a country about five times our size. Redraw the constituency maps and suck a few of those arguably competent folk into more regional levels to promote a bit more quality there. Elect the Lords perhaps.

Right, now we have a slightly more reasonable model of government upon which to validate my theory. I’ll start with the respect part. While it may be laughable or frustrating at times to see these politicians stack industrial quantities of ridicule upon themselves, they are above all things the people who turned up. Motivations aside, they offered themselves to the altar of public service, incomprehensible an act as that may be, and were elected by us to run our country.

That is, run a diverse and modern country of approximately 65 million often fickle people in as effective, but adversely as popular, a manner as they can. Their pain is a mammoth news media machine’s bread and butter. I mentioned logistics earlier and that example was one of a only a few things more difficult than the task facing these men and women. It’s an unfathomably difficult thing to do, let alone do well, and I don’t want to try as much as you probably don’t.

This leads to the next part about pay and privilege, factors that I think could be considered sufficiently supported by what I’ve already said. There are more practical than just sentimental elements however. I consider the reasonably standard theory that higher pay attracts higher quality, and argue that at least a little bit more intellectual talent could be stolen from the private sector. A 65k annual MP’s salary, before Cabinet and Select Committee bonuses, is by no means stingy but could be more competitive.

But that’s not even my favourite argument. MPs are regularly bombarded with temptations from private interests, such as lucrative post-public sector career opportunities, in exchange for the inside line. Given how potentially short an MP’s career can be, it would make some sense to recompense them enough to keep them honest in the face of these sultry advances. I also happen to think that entertaining said interests should carry an automatic political death sentence, but it’s slightly off-topic.

The privilege aspect goes back a touch to the sentimental. MP’s may be public servants, but that doesn’t exactly make them our public servants in a very literal sense. They shouldn’t be required to bow and scrape in equal a measure to how they shouldn’t consider themselves unduly elite or authoritative. It goes back to a mutual respect in the contract of being handed whatever authority they possess by the people, in the understanding that we expect them to make very tough decisions. We grant them a heavy responsibility so as to relieve ourselves of it.

I do not give two hoots about MP’s taking a publicly covered taxi to work from inside the city, or having the audacity to send a child to private school if they can afford and want to do so. It doesn’t implicitly cry a lack of faith in the infrastructural or educational institutions of the nation that they are supposedly conducting. Neither does it automatically put them on a sort of pedestal above the rest of us to whom TFL service and the quality of the local catchment school are regular concerns.

Without going on forever, it would be nice to have a political class that reflects the pride we should want to have in our nation’s politics. Whatever it is we’re doing now, clearly does not engineer that kind of a situation and, whether or not you agree with anything I’ve offered as a solution, something needs to change. Thoughts?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Political Class

  1. Many thanks for this detailed and rigorous account of your position… and for your flattery (although I suspect it may in fact be a rhetorical strategy designed to disarm me!) which I must confess is quite misplaced. The technical intricacies of modern politics are a foreign thing to me so you’ll forgive any minor falsehoods you might detect below. Likewise, forgive me if I happen to misrepresent your views on the issue at hand. They may lose some of their nuance and sophistication in the clumsy rebuttal I offer here.
    Having said that, there are some troubling inconsistencies in the position you’ve taken with respect to the remuneration of our political representatives. In your article you state:
    “MPs are regularly bombarded with temptations from private interests, such as lucrative post-public sector career opportunities, in exchange for the inside line. Given how potentially short an MP’s career can be, it would make some sense to recompense them enough to keep them honest in the face of these sultry advances.”
    And yet despite this, you also want us to respect our MPs more “if only deep down inside”. Does this mean we’ve elected people who would instantly engage in all kinds of corruption if it weren’t for the fact that their pockets are already full to bursting? And you also wish we would respect these individuals more? If the only thing preventing MPs from trading on their position is the fact that they are already rich then we really do live in troubling times. It seems to me that a representative who is genuinely worthy of respect is the one who will never use their public office for private gain out of principle, not because their salary has already been grossly inflated. Also, if we reverse the position, do you also maintain that an employee who has no opportunity to make a few quid on the sly should be paid less for that reason? The trajectory of your rationale here seems to imply that salary should increase in line with the potential for corruption attached to the job. I think rather than seeking to mitigate corruption through excessive pay, we should focus our minds on creating the conditions which would allow honest people to take up public office.
    Another point you raise concerns the difficulty attached to the role of MP. It is certainly true that MPs suffer at the hands of the media. Likewise, the task of creating policy which will satisfy even a majority of the population is not to be taken lightly. Nonetheless, I maintain our politicians are currently paid far too much. Currently the average income in the UK (after tax) is just under £25k. That’s not per adult but per family. I find it hard to understand how the work of an MP could be so difficult or unpleasant as to warrant a salary well over double that figure. Even a soldier earns only half the salary of a serving MP (Captain rank salary is about £30k). What could possibly account for this discrepancy? Is the work of an MP really more important or difficult than that of a Captain in the Army who might kill (and die) for his or her country?
    Another quotation from your piece:
    “I do not give two hoots about MP’s taking a publicly covered taxi to work from inside the city, or having the audacity to send a child to private school if they can afford and want to do so. It doesn’t implicitly cry a lack of faith in the infrastructural or educational institutions of the nation that they are supposedly conducting.”
    I would like to get to the core of the principle which underlies your position here. Are you happy for our MPs to indulge in any level of personal comfort or convenience? Or is there a limit to how much comfort/convenience you would allow them? I would contend that publicly covered taxi trips are a luxury which should not be available to MPs. The lifestyles of MPs should approximate the lifestyles of those they represent. If MPs are allowed excessive luxuries such as free taxis and a private education for the children we are already paving the way for the kind of misconduct one witnesses from figures such as Berlusconi. The difference between our taxi-loving MPs and the orgy-loving Berlusconi is not qualitative, but one of degree.
    My view on the remuneration of MPs is that their pay should be attached to the average salary. There should be quite literally no financial incentive for someone to become an MP. The incentive must be the desire to serve the public and work in their interest. Contrary to the usual dictum about high salaries attracting talented individuals, I’m of the mind that high salaries attract people who are interested in earning a lot of money. Those who earn less are not necessarily untalented, they may have talent and commitment in abundance, but if they are happy to work hard for little money they might also have the quality of spirit and dedication that I would like to see from those who serve in government. The fact that these qualities are lacking in our current administration is constantly reinforced by successive stories of moats, duck-palaces, pornography, and all manner of other delights claimed illegitimately by our representatives over the past few years. The expenses scandal exposed the deep rooted corruption in our system which I argue has been exacerbated by our failure to reduce MPs salaries to a decent level.
    Paying a sensible salary to MPs will also ensure their interest in actually improving public services. How can we expect an MP to really recognise the chronic under performance of our current education system if they do not experience it for themselves as part of their daily lives? How can we expect MPs to really feel the outrage of commuters who pay enormous rail fares in order to stand cheek-to-cheek whilst they are shipped around like cattle for hours every day when these MPs travel in the comfort and privacy of a black-cab?
    A final quotation: “it would be nice to have a political class that reflects the pride we should want to have in our nation’s politics.”
    I couldn’t agree more… and yet the thought of MPs living rent free in Canonbury and Kensington while British families struggle to heat their homes does not invoke feelings of pride. On the contrary, I would feel positively engorged with pride if I heard of a MP who desired only to serve the common good, who would rather couch-serf and hitch-hike than spend a single penny of public money on a cab fare, an MP who had such strength of character that they would sooner fall on their sword than risk compromising their integrity and public standing. I would be proud of an MP who saw public service as a period of trial, a test of character and commitment, rather than an opportunity to sate their appetite for wealth and power.
    Of course, these are only my humble and idealistic musings which have little real significance for politics today… my only consolation is that my opinion is fortunately aligned with objective truth meaning that the position as stated above is, I’m afraid, rhetorically unassailable.

  2. Anonymous

    dan pink has argued very convincingly (drawing on studies of capitalist institutions such as the IMF), that increased financial incentives lead to POORER performance. When it comes to cognitive tasks which require problem-solving or abstract thinking to find solutions, time and time again, studies show a negative correlation between incentivisation and performance.

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