There's a cure for the lobbying problem reignited by Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind sting, but you won't want to hear it

The talent pool for the big jobs in government is narrow enough as it is

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The Independent Online

Once again the UK’s elected MPs are in trouble. The current furore involves only two of them, two of the biggest in Parliament: former foreign secretaries caught out in another TV sting. But the voters’ disdain will extend well beyond the duo, who were filmed discussing potentially lucrative assignments. A lot of voters will feel renewed anger as they respond with those famous clichés, “They’re all the same”. “They’re all in it for themselves.”

The clichés are wrong but they raise two pivotal questions. Who do we want to represent us, and what roles do we wish them to perform? The Straw/Rifkind saga highlights the complex challenge of seeking clear answers. In their case two entirely contradictory arguments apply.

Straw and Rifkind’s comments in the Channel 4 sting are not as shocking as they seem, and yet the outrage of some voters is wholly justified. In order to explain the contradiction let us consider the matter from the perspectives of Straw and Rifkind, then the wider electorate.

Straw is standing down as an MP in May. Like many who give up a job, he wants to continue working and to earn money. He has already earned additional cash working for a company. The details are in the register of MPs’ interests. In the film he declares that his fee is £5,000 a day “if I’m doing a speech or something”. Separately in the film, Rifkind proclaims that he has plenty of time on his hands, so much of it that he walks and reads extensively.

To most voters the whole of that sequence is beyond explanation, which is why the two party leaders cannot afford to show any nuance in their responses. The duo will be thrown to the wolves. Most of Straw’s constituents do not earn anywhere near £5,000 a month, let alone a day for delivering a “speech or something”. Similarly voters who have turned against the Conservative party on the grounds that it stands only for the out-of-touch wealthy will have their instincts confirmed by Rifkind’s apparent appetite for additional cash.

Yet the sequence is not shocking, in the sense that it is not surprising. Unlike the revelations in relation to MPs’ expenses, the information about politicians performing other well-paid roles is out there in front of our eyes. To take a well-known example, in 2001 after the Conservatives lost the election, William Hague stood down as leader but remained an MP. He became admired widely for his capacity to earn vast sums giving entertaining speeches, taking some directorships, and for writing books.

I found it comically illuminating that when Hague was leader he could find no admiring audience for his speeches. When he stepped down, companies were willing to pay a fortune to hear him. That was an issue for those signing the cheques rather than for Hague. Who can blame him for earning the money? Few voters did. He remained an assiduous MP. His popularity soared.

 

Or take the case of Ken Clarke. In opposition, he became a director of British American Tobacco. Imagine if Channel 4 had filmed those negotiations in secret. They did not do so and Clarke remains an admired public figures. As with Straw and Rifkind, both Hague and Clarke declared their external activities on the MPs’ register.

Rifkind’s confession that he had a lot of spare time to read and walk sounded appalling. But he was being clumsily candid. Frankly, some MPs are quite bored as they await an election after a long five-year parliament. If they choose to do so, some of them have time to walk and read. This is not a revelation, nor is it big news that a former Foreign Secretary can earn £5,000 for a speech. A TV presenter or stand-up comedian can earn a lot more than that. Yet of course to those whose lives are miles away from the wild market of speech-making it is shocking.

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A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday

Here is the dilemma arising from the vast gap between voters’ disdain and the potential for MPs to supplement their incomes. If MPs are not allowed to earn more, or to contemplate earning any income once they leave the Commons, fewer talented people will enter politics or, crucially, stay in politics. In staying on after his traumatic spell as leader, Hague has been a calming confidant for David Cameron, perhaps his only senior colleague with no ambition to succeed him. Clarke continues to be one of the most important voices on the Conservative benches, on Europe and other matters. They and others might not have stuck with the long haul of opposition after 1997 if they had not been allowed to take other jobs.

Do we as a country want elected representatives to earn salaries, say, close to the average wage? There is a powerful argument for such an arrangement. If there is a cost of living crisis they will know about it personally. There is also a strong case for arguing that former cabinet ministers can work nowhere once they have retired from politics. After all, the interest of Channel 4’s imaginary company in Straw and Rifkind has nothing to do with the duo’s personal charm. They are in demand because of what they have done, what they know and who they know. But if there is a ban on former ministers taking up posts when they leave politics, some might not seek to be a minister in the first place. The talent pool for the big jobs in government, and on the front bench in opposition, would be even narrower than it already is.

There is an alternative route. MPs should earn more. If they take outside jobs there must be total transparency. Transparency is high already. If an MP receives so much as a table tennis ball as a gift he or she must declare it. But it has become politically impossible to pay higher salaries. As a result, an appetite for higher earnings, not uncommon in other professions, takes seemingly desperate forms.

MPs are in trouble. That means that we as a democracy are in trouble. Do we want MPs to be local representatives alone, coming from a local community and becoming an advocate for that community as a noble end in itself? Do we want MPs to be brilliant cabinet ministers, implementing change or dynamic shadow ministers, holding governments to account while leading their party effectively?

Sometimes the local representative, indifferent to income, will become brilliant national politicians too, but not always. We might benefit from representatives who want to earn a lot more than an MP’s current salary. As a country we have awkward questions to answer too.

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