Tony Travers: What are you really getting when you hire an MP?

There is no great demandfor ex-MPs after a Westminster clear-out

Share
Related Topics

Honourable members must be wondering when the public's taste for day-by-day exposure of their finances will finally be satisfied. With the ink barely dry on the expenses scandal, the press have now turned their attention to Members' outside earnings.

What each earns in addition to their annual £64,000 salary is not by any means the same issue as mortgage "flipping" or claims for domestic luxuries. However the public, in its current febrile mood, is unlikely to see MPs' outside earnings in a happy light.

It is worth looking back at the origins of modern parliamentary practice. Since 1945, and indeed before, it was commonplace for MPs to supplement their modest earnings with their private wealth or outside employment. Trades unions supported some Labour MPs. The desire to see Parliament representing people from different backgrounds informed the debate about the need for "professional" politicians.

One risk of the current debate is that it may end up accidentally making Parliament a place for the very rich and for those content to be relatively poor. Even in the recent past, most MPs had "proper" jobs for a number of years and then, later on, went into Parliament. Farmers, miners, teachers, businesspeople and, famously, lawyers looked for a seat once they had established themselves in a career. Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Robinson are prime examples of people who have had successful business and parliamentary careers. It is now almost a cliché to complain that new MPs tend to be drawn from a pool of think-tankers, ministerial advisers, union officers, NGO officials and local councillors. These new jobs provide brilliant contacts in politics.

Being an MP has also changed. To some extent, MPs have become local "citizens advice" agencies, usurping the role of councillors. Government whips are often content to keep their potentially errant brood of backbenchers away from Westminster. Statistics suggest the number of sitting days may be slowly declining, as is the length of the average House of Commons day, though in fairness, more of the House's work now goes on in committees. When they are voting, heavy whipping is intended to keep MPs in line.

If the Commons chamber has, as is widely believed, become less of a forum for debate on matters of moment, it is possible some MPs may feel they have more time to devote to potential outside earnings. MPs' basic pay is not high. For those with marginal constituencies, political extinction may be only a general election away. Arguably, they need to maintain outside interests and contacts in case their seat is lost. There is never a massive demand for ex-MPs after a Westminster clear-out.

But, as the employment backgrounds of MPs have changed, so has the argument about their outside interests. In the past, an ex-businessperson who retained a part-time role in a company might have brought experience to a debate about industrial policy. Today, the link will often be of a different kind.

An MP may be appointed to the board or as an adviser by a company seeking contacts and access. They may also be employed to provide "strategic advice" about the public sector, particularly as the state has become muddled with the private sector because of the contracting-out of services. Although there is nothing wrong with such arrangements, they are often different kinds of outside link to those based on a previous career.

In the light of the rumpus over MPs' expenses, it is bound to be seen as problematic when parliamentarians have two or more non-executive directorships or advisory roles, each of which brings in a sum close to the average national earnings. Either people are earning what most people will see as a substantial amount of money for little effort or, potentially worse, members must be spending a good deal of time away from their parliamentary duties. No wonder many MPs are announcing they will leave the House of Commons or cut back on their external earnings.

The apparently endless drip-drip of stories about MPs' expenses has created massive public aggravation. Now the details about outside earnings have taken another thin layer off the historic veneer of our system of government.

In the brief period between now and the general election, MPs need, in effect, to agree new working arrangements with the electorate that are acceptable both to Parliament and to voters. The election itself needs to allow us all to start again, producing a set of legislators that we respect. If it proves impossible to achieve this kind of outcome, we risk heading off into a nasty and dangerous democratic vacuum. The stakes are much higher than just MPs' earnings.



Tony Travers is a professor of government at the LSE

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones