Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Aside from the impact it has on your life, getting elected costs tens of thousands of pounds

Isabel Hardman
Thursday 26 February 2015 19:21
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Who would be an MP? Judging by the cash-for-access row this week about Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, the job should appeal to anyone who fancies making a fast buck. Both MPs explained to undercover reporters they could earn around £5,000 a day for such work, on top of their £67,000 parliamentary salary. Sounds pretty cushy, doesn’t it?

But Rifkind didn’t seem to think the £67,000 was enough to support MPs, explaining rather clumsily that someone from his “professional background” was entitled to more. This week his colleague Sir Peter Tapsell warned in the House of Commons banning MPs from taking on lucrative second jobs would mean Parliament would be “largely confined to the inheritors of substantial fortunes or to those with rich spouses, or to obsessive crackpots or those who are unemployable anywhere else”.

Both men raise valid concerns about whether MPs’ pay, even if it is three times higher than the national average, might put some off from standing for Parliament. Just over half of MPs took a pay cut to enter the Commons in 2010, with a third of our representatives hailing from the professions and a quarter from business. Perhaps there are other, better candidates who never applied because they felt “entitled” to better pay.

It’s not just pay that puts good people off, though. For many of those working in the Commons, particularly those representing marginal seats, it’s a gruelling life of late votes, constituency engagements, bill committees and many hours sat on a train chugging back to the constituency from Westminster. Some lose their marriages, others see very little of their children. One MP, currently fighting to hold a marginal seat, admits losing it would give them their life and family back.

On reshuffle days in particular it seems you have to be a mug to go into politics because you can get sacked just because someone else deserves a chance, or even never get appointed just because you’re not part of the “inner circle” around the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the .

Parliament itself is dysfunctional: Michael Cockerell’s BBC series Inside the Commons showed the building is crumbling. The IT system often breaks, MPs don’t have any human resources support, which is pretty essential if your researcher turns out to be doing no work or develops a crush on you, and mice scuttle across desks. One MP who complained about the rodents was told it was because the building was next to the river. “So is the Savoy,” he retorted, irritably.

Perhaps you’re hunting for the world’s tiniest violin as you read this. After all, no-one asks these people to become MPs. But few of us would prefer a parliamentarian so cold they don’t mind spending long periods of time away from their loved ones, or so unambitious they don’t want to better themselves.

We would also like our elected representatives to really represent British voters by coming from the same range of backgrounds and jobs as the rest of us do. But even before they start performing their parliamentary duties, would-be MPs must be rich to make it that far. Research for the website ConservativeHome found it cost candidates £34,400 of their own money (including loss of earnings, the cost of travelling to different constituencies for selection meetings, attending conferences and training days, and campaigning in by-elections, which the parties often make a condition of your candidacy) to stand.

This is a staggering price for what is essentially a protracted job interview with no guarantee you’ll get the job at the end. I know a candidate fighting a seat they might not win who has already spent more than £45,000 of their own money.

Again, you might feel unsympathetic when the salary MPs rake in once they do reach Parliament is so good. But with an entry fee of tens of thousands of pounds, Parliament is effectively closed to shop workers, manual workers and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. If you run a corner shop and want to improve your community, you’d balk at the amount of money you’d have to shell out yourself to do it. Today just 4 per cent of our MPs were manual workers before they entered Parliament, compared to 16 per cent in 1979.

Can party leaders do anything about this? If they demanded state funding for candidates, or supported higher salaries for MPs, then the polls show the public would be furious. But it’s worth remembering voters are furious with the current situation where MPs have second jobs and parties are funded by wealthy donors. Parties are damned whichever way they turn on funding politics.

If a brave leader really wanted to improve the state of parliament, he or she could pick whichever policy they thought best because voters won’t reward them whatever they do or don’t do. But the current statistics don’t suggest the current state of affairs is working very well at all.

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