The focus on MPs is always intense when they are offered a pay rise or are accused of fiddling their expenses. There is virtually no debate about their role as elected representatives. It is easy to cry “greedy bastards” and move on, but what do we want them to do when they get to parliament, beyond not getting paid very much? The question is rarely asked.
The context of their proposed 11 per cent pay rise is darkly comic. The offer comes from the independent parliamentary watchdog IPSA, a body largely loathed by MPs. For much of the time IPSA is on to them as if they were naughty schoolchildren. Now in complete contrast, IPSA proposes such a big pay rise that some MPs feel compelled to express shock and horror, as if Scrooge has turned into Santa Claus on crystal meth.
The Cabinet will state they will not take the rise. I bet the Shadow Cabinet will declare the same, although most of them get no additional income for their frontbench duties. Such fearful declarations of course are largely symbolic. The rise will not come into effect until after the election when the Shadow Cabinet might form the Cabinet and vice versa. Still they are all terrified of being associated with the rise. And yet the whole explosive issue of pay was transferred to IPSA in order to avoid any further anger about MPs awarding themselves a rise. Even from an independent source, previously known for its Calvinistic rigidity, prominent MPs are too scared to accept the offer.
In fact I believe they should take the rise – one that would give MPs a salary of £74,000 after the election. The move would be a one-off leap and would be followed by far smaller rises in the future. The leap is necessary if we value democratic politics. Whenever people say to me they do not trust any politician and that they are all the bloody same, I ask them what they would prefer as an alternative to elected politicians. I have never heard a coherent response.
I can understand some of the disillusionment. There are some great, exciting, dynamic, articulate MPs but far too many are mediocre. Several party leaders, past and present, have told me they struggle to find the talent from the parliamentary pool to fill their front benches. Of course part of the problem with modern politics is that a leaders’ definition of sparkling talent is total loyalty – a Tory MP who worships at the altar of Cameron/Osborne’s reheated Thatcherism, or a Labour MP who can utter the phrase “cost of living crisis” in every sentence as if they were a robot.
But another very big part of the problem is that it is completely taboo for leaders to suggest that part of an MP’s job description is to be a figure big enough to devise and implement national policies and become a powerful advocate for them. Instead the qualifications are increasingly related to connections with a constituency and a tireless commitment to the local area.
On one level the number of independent-minded Tory MPs elected in the 2010 intake is impressive – backbenchers who care more about speaking for their constituents than they do about becoming a minister. Equally it is a noble ambition to become a social worker, which is how some MPs proudly describe their role to me. Recently I asked a former MP and cabinet minister – now in a much better paid job outside politics – about the main differences. He said that it was almost impossibly demanding to be a cabinet minister and then return to the constituency at weekends to deal with a mountain of local issues, pointing out that in France ministers are spared the additional responsibilities of constituency work.
This would never happen here because the connection with the constituency is so highly prized. But the emphasis on the local comes at the expense of the need for MPs to address national responsibilities. Leading, governing, opposing, communicating, advocating, winning elections are increasingly dependent on a small number of MPs on either side who are seen as up to the job.
This marks a big shift in a short time. In the 1980s Neil Kinnock was widely condemned as being weak when he had no powers to intervene in the selection of candidates, and strong when he took measures to acquire a degree of control. Similarly in 1997 John Major was dismissed as weak when he could not remove the controversial Neil Hamilton as the Conservatives’ candidate in Tatton. Now if a leader seeks to have a say in the selection of candidates they are seen as control freaks, not least by their local party memberships. Yet in any other field, leaders would have a big say in who might be joining them in a national project of significance.
Do we want local social workers or national politicians or can we have both? Let us spend more time debating what we want from MPs and less moaning about the cost of democratic politics.
Balls is tough but the traps are plenty
The storm arising from Ed Balls’ response to last Thursday’s Autumn Statement is of peripheral significance. The shadow Chancellor remains by a very wide margin the only MP on Labour’s side who can navigate the nightmarishly tough terrain in which politics meets economics.
The terrain is thorny for any shadow Chancellor. Most do not last for long in the post. In recent times only Gordon Brown and George Osborne have stayed the course. Both were the subjects of scathing internal and external criticism.
Balls is tough enough to withstand the lofty attacks from those who have given little thought to economic policy and how to project it in what is a largely hostile media environment.
The much bigger story from last Thursday is Osborne’s confirmation that he plans to cut deeply for years to come. The Chancellor is often seen only as a political game player, but he is also ideological.
He believes in a smaller state and has asserted that public services can be better with much lower levels of spending. This is a dangerous fantasy, but it is one that Labour struggles to challenge in opposition.
Balls is already committed to sticking to Osborne’s early current spending plans for the next parliament, but somehow or other needs to find the space to avoid pledging support for cuts that apply as far away as 2019.
He needs to do so without falling into Osborne’s highly visible but still daunting “tax and spend” trap – one of many reasons why the job is impossibly tough.