In December I met for coffee with an exceptionally talented young Labour MP. She has merits that most employees would salivate at: a fierce intelligence, excellent communication skills, judgement and motivation. Best of all, she has an inspirational concern for social justice and solidarity with the poor and needy.
Naturally we got talking about the prospects for her party in 2015, and I joked about her imminent challenge for the party leadership. At which point, she dropped a bombshell. She probably won’t be in parliament after the next election, she said. And certainly not after that. Why, I asked. Because the life of an MP can be utterly thankless, and she could easily earn three times the money in the private sector.
Long before the corrosive effect of the expenses scandal, our politicians have been generally held in low regard. There are many accusations against them, from vanity to venality and everything in between. The stupidest thing said about them is that they’re lazy. Well, they are not, often commuting across vast tracts of the country, doing seven-day weeks and putting their families under unbearable strain.
It’s in this context that we should examine the news that MPs have said they deserve a salary of £86,250, up from the current £65,738. Unsurprisingly, Tories had the highest estimation of their worth (£96,740), Lib Dems were second (£78,361) and Labour were third (£77,322). Other parties alighted on £75,091 between them.
Your instinctive reaction to this might be repulsion. Government, which is led by an exceptionally privileged elite, vote to cut the incomes of the poor (through welfare reform) while demanding a pay rise for themselves. And in any case, you might say, politics is about serving the public, not making a fortune. I sympathise with both those points.
But I keep thinking about that Labour MP too. I don’t want her to leave public service.
In several aspects of modern life we are breaking the connection between the consumption of valued goods and the purchase of them. Some people, like Chris Anderson, author of a marvellous book called Free, revel in this trend. I’m afraid I can’t. I’m as guilty as you are of consuming things that I adore – daily journalism, music from iTunes, five series of The Wire – without paying for them. But quality costs. This year, I’m trying (especially on the journalism front) to pay if I can.
The same applies to MPs. There are 650 of them. If each got that increase, it would cost the public £13,332,800. This year, our government will spend £683,600,000,000. So we’re talking 0.00195 per cent, or one fifty-thousandth, of public expenditure.
Quality costs. We need brilliant MPs. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.