Are you worth your salary?: Measuring the money value of an MP against a nurse or a milkman tells only half the story

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The Independent Online
PAY PEANUTS and you get monkeys. But how much is peanuts and what are monkeys? Does, for example, pounds 33,169 a year amount to nothing more than a bag of dry- roasted and is a backbencher a primate? And, if we were to pay something decisively more than a bag of nuts - say, pounds 60,000 - would we get anything significantly higher up the evolutionary scale?

For everybody except MPs, the reality behind the fuss about their salaries is glaringly obvious. It is an act of almost unbelievable political ineptitude. Of course they may justify the percentage increase because they have waived increases in the past and their pay is pegged to civil service rates. But if you waive a pay increase you should not try to get it back again, and catching up at this particular moment, in the midst of a series of rail strikes and with enormous upward pressure on public sector pay in particular, is extraordinarily bad timing. Worst of all is the bland attempt to justify the 4.7 per cent on the basis of some pointedly humble comparison.

'If you break our salary down to an hourly rate,' says Ann Winterton, 'you will probably find we earn less than a milkman.'

It is this kind of time-wasting red herring that, along with the lousy pay, keeps intelligent people out of politics. The point - should this really need to be said? - is not the absolute level of pay, it is the political significance of the degree of change. As anybody who watched the grim passage of the late Seventies with any attention will tell you, percentages are a matter of life, death and trade union machismo. In those heady days of social contracts and hyperinflation, the percentage was your combat medal - wear your percentage with pride - because it attested to your brute power.

Anyway, people prefer milkmen.

For the detested MPs to flaunt what, in this case, amounts to their absolute, unopposed pay-bargaining power is madness. Of course their percentage will be used as crude leverage by other groups; of course they will be mocked for displaying greedy self-interest. In South Africa, where the excesses of ANC ministers appear to be extreme, politicians' pay is beginning to look like a very ominous matter indeed. It is an obvious and easy target, the very type-specimen of the abuse of power. You don't line your own pockets, or, at least, you don't appear to.

The cost of political insensitivity may not be as high in Britain as in South Africa, but it is certainly distasteful in the same way as it was in the snouts-in-the-trough Seventies. One can see the smirk on the face of John Edmonds of the GMB union when he says: 'What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.'

Inevitably, teachers and nurses will say they want the same as the MPs; they are, after all, in the same public service game. So the pay pressure increases, the percentages edge upward. Money is pumped into the system, consumers buy low-cost oriental products - now on Sunday, too - the pound slumps and it all goes wrong again.

But outside the grubby pettiness and envy of short-term politics, and the drab peculiarities of modern British economics, there is the wider question of what an MP - or, indeed, anybody - is worth. From one perspective, MPs are well-off, they get generous allowances plus a salary at least 50 per cent higher than the average. Yet, by international standards, their pay is pathetic. In Brussels the pay of our MEPs compared with the Germans causes a constant whine. And the list of professions or trades - the law, advertising, art dealing - in which smart, gifted people might expect to earn a lot more is long. On balance it is probably true that pay is one further reason, along with boredom, party censorship and fear of scandal, for the best and brightest not to go into politics.

On this basis the best that the MPs could have done for the country would have been to go for 100 per cent. This would have lifted them out of the petty percentages game and could have been presented as a strategic move - not even the nurses could seriously have tried to keep up with them. We might have choked a little on paying this particular lot more than pounds 60,000, but we could have consoled ourselves that it was, in absolute terms, cheap, and might in due course produce a more convincing, competent army of representatives.

That, of course, is a purely pragmatic argument that does not directly address the deeper matter of what people and their work is worth. The problem here is that, although worth appears to be the absolute that underpins all the rhetoric of pay demands, in reality it is a concept that eludes definition.

We may, for example, feel emotionally that nurses are worth a lot because they care for the sick or that signalmen are worth more because they stop trains crashing into each other. Or we may feel rationally that businessmen are worth more because they create wealth. But all such arguments can be convincingly qualified - surely nursing is a vocation and wouldn't businessmen perform best if their workforce felt their pay was reasonably connected to their own? And, in either case, doesn't the market have the last word? We may have all the nurses we need but lack talented businessmen, so the money is lowered or raised accordingly.

But it is not quite enough to say that it is all relative and that's that. We seize on money - even in periods when its value changes rapidly - as an absolute. It gives us access to status and the rapidly proliferating list of available goods. It offers freedom, both from certain kinds of anxiety and from the sheer effort involved in not having enough. Politics these days is largely about money, and even the higher pursuits - art, the good life - are facilitated by it. Good opera requires a good sound system or the price of an expensive ticket and, even if the benign state subsidises your ticket, somebody, somewhere pays.

Money is a clear measure. We cannot quantify happiness or fulfilment, but we can measure our own situation against pounds 33,169 or whatever. It may not seem a particularly virtuous or noble scale, but it is real and there is nothing else quite so precise. We can say that task X earns us sum Y and we know we shall be understood by people who can imagine what such a rate of reward might mean to them. It is also neutral. We may disagree on whether this or that is a good way to live, but we cannot dispute that one sum of money is larger than another.

Set against that is the equally absolute conviction that money is not everything. I do not expect a poet or philosopher I admire to earn as much as a City dealer for whose work I care nothing. And the crude statement that somebody is only in it for the money inspires unease. It implies a partial, flawed personality. Beyond a certain point the crude accumulation of wealth indicates spiritual bankruptcy. Most of us would wonder what drives somebody with, say, pounds 10m to continue to work solely to increase their assets. There must be something else, something to give colour to the neutrality of the brute pile of cash. It must have some real potential other than its own growth.

In practice it is this feeling of 'something else' that lets people live their lives at all. If money was the only absolute, then once it became clear to people that they were destined to be either poor or only reasonably well-off, they would logically abandon the game. But usually they do not. They see other absolutes in their own experience or they work for the benefit of their children. Or they may simply feel that their way of spending money gives a better life - paying for the upkeep of an allotment may seem more fulfilling than wearing white trousers on the deck of a yacht in St Tropez.

But the problem is that the language of fulfilment, although fundamental to life as it is lived, does not exist in the public realm. When modern politicians attempt to speak such a language they sound ridiculous. Perhaps in the United States or France some fragments of this language remain, but in Britain and most other developed countries the words do not exist. For a complex variety of reasons John Major sounds silly when he bring up cricket or old maids cycling to communion and John Patten defeated himself by attempting to discuss education in moral or spirtual as opposed to pragmatic terms.

In this context, it is clear that much of the present fuss about Blairite communitarianism arises from an attempt to find some subject other than money that will directly affect people's political allegiances. But how robust will this new rhetoric be at the height of the next boom or in the depths of the next recession? For the moment the soft words from the left are offering no more than an impression of niceness and understanding. Unless they can be convincingly strengthened, they will be defeated by the more quantifiable demand that the people want more money.

Which is perhaps to say no more than that the MPs should get more, but, because of the very system to which they so assiduously subscribe, they can't have it.

(Photograph omitted)