Matthew Norman: Why not let MPs go on strike for more pay?

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The Independent Online

To any British MP enduring a sense of outrage or self-pity, or both, over their pay, the advice is briefly put: Remember, remember the fifth of November.

I refer here not to a modern Gunpowder Plot, however comforting it is to imagine that gothic monstrosity being blown to smithereens (I cannot recommend that underrated film V For Vendetta, in which a latter day Guy Fawkes destroys the Palace of Westminster, warmly enough; I watch it four or five times a week). I am thinking of a report in this newspaper on 5 November last year, headlined "Belgium approaches 150 days without government", about how the rival parties in Brussels had still failed to form a coalition since the June election.

Nowhere in this report, nor in any other, was there any hint that the populace was suffering in any appreciable way. In fact, plucky little Belgium soldiered on as before, and of those citizens I saw being interviewed on television about the alleged "crisis", about half were barely aware of it while the other half thought that life had slightly improved.

Somewhere here lies a lesson about the central importance of elected politicians, you may think, for any British MP tempted to withdraw labour in protest at Gordon Brown's refusal to implement the Senior Salaries Review Body's recommendation of a 10 per cent pay hike over the next three years. If the Belgians can manage fine without a government for six months, we could probably scrape by without the services of our backbenchers.

Exactly what those services might be remains among the more impenetrable mysteries of a peculiarly bemusing political age. Whenever the pay issue is debated on the radio, an Hon. Mem. is wheeled out to insist that he or she doesn't know a single MP who doesn't put in a 70-hour week, at the very minimum, but without offering any precise ergonomic detail as to how this figure is reached.

In this instance, even Shami Chakrabarti might agree to suspend the usual civil libertarian objections, and support the most intrusive surveillance of every backbencher for a calendar year (or at least for the 32 weeks of the year on which they aren't off on their hols).

Tagging wouldn't come close. Nothing less than implanting a miniature camera and microphone under the skin would be needed to record every minute spent in the debating chamber, on committees, signing facetious Early Day Motions, conducting surgeries, petitioning ministers on behalf of constituents, and so on; and to distinguish time expended on legitimate activities from that spent drinking malt whisky at tuppence farthing a shot in the Pugin Room, bitching about colleagues and plotting against leaders, travelling first class to and from their wickedly subsidised second homes, moonlighting as telly pundits, consultants to arms firms and directors of banks and cigarette makers, and filing the expenses claims which go some way (albeit not nearly as far as those insanely lavish pension arrangements) to making British MPs among the world's most luminescently overpaid elected politicians.

Readers familiar with the expenses culture that once and for so long made Fleet Street the national HQ for petty fraud will wonder how well placed any hack can be to lecture others on the matter. They clearly have a point. Twenty years ago, my own inaugural exes claim was returned by an executive with an irritable scrawl ("Much too low. Do them again") in red ink. But that was then, in an era when certain colleagues had their own printing machines to produce receipts from imaginary restaurants.

Keen nostalgists will rejoice that a culture which so sadly died out long ago in this industry persists at Westminster, where MPs claim comparative fortunes without the inconvenience of having to forge receipts. To pluck one example from many, the erstwhile David Maclean, who by a striking instance of Jungian synchronicity led last year's vain attempt to exclude MPs' expenses from freedom of information legislation, once claimed £3,300 for the quad bike he believed essential for traversing the rugged terrain of his Penrith and The Border constituency.

Factor in the MP's annual allowance of some £22,000 for mortgages on second homes, which equates to almost £40,000 of taxed income, and already one glimpses what absolute piffle it is for them to whine about the wretchedness of their basic salary (virtually doubled in a decade to almost £62,000) compared with senior civil servants, GPs, private sector workers and others whose jobs actually require qualifications and a requisite number of weekly hours of quantifiable work.

Not until that taxpayer-subsidised pension scheme is considered, however, does the full luxuriance of the package become apparent. The last actuarial analysis published, in 2004, found that, to replicate the income from the final salary pension of an MP of 26 years' standing, you'd have to spend about eight times that MP's total contribution (just over £1m) on an annuity.

So without labouring the irony of MPs voting themselves much improved rights just as the extent of the national pensions crisis was unfolding, we may assume the PM is on safe ground in seeking to bully backbenchers into voting for the identical 1.9 per cent pay hike he plans to impose on the police.

As for his newly revealed decision to forego the colossal pension to which tradition entitles him the moment he leaves office, this looks like a minor political masterstroke. The implicit contrast drawn between his fiscal puritanism and the avarice of Mr Tony Blair, the estimate of whose JP Morgan Chase salary has quintupled in a week to £2.5m, will do him nothing but good.

If Brown really wants to revive his approval ratings, he should demand a pay, pensions, expenses and allowances freeze for a decade. He should argue, with all the passion he can muster, that entering Parliament is one of the most lustrous privileges this democracy can confer, that attempts to compare the role of self-allegedly altruistic MPs with a career in the private sector are specious and self-serving to the point of nauseating. He should thunderously proclaim that if serving the electorate isn't enough enticement for bright and able people to stand for Parliament, our democratic system is corrupted beyond endurance.

Should all that fail to embarrass them into jettisoning the usual nest-feathering – and shaming the pathologically shameless is never easy – he could challenge the dissenters to go on strike, and so put their curious faith in the indispensability of politicians to the test. If the Belgian model is any kind of reliable guide, they'd have the shock of their plushly cushioned little lives.

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