There is never a good time to propose increasing the pay of MPs. Not even a Lions and Andy Murray-fuelled feel good factor has enough power to move that issue from the political third rail to the safety of the mainstream. But I can’t help but think that we are focusing on the wrong question.
I started to write this blog post yesterday when contemplating the recent discussion of the issue before Ed Milliband made his speech on the link between Labour and the Unions. Depending on your view he either bravely or cravenly touched on some of the wider issues in this debate- but these are issues that I think should concerns us all.
We should be asking ourselves not how much should MPs earn but how do we strengthen our democracy and the link between MPs and the people who employ them; us. One of the great missed opportunities of the last few years has been the collective failure of the political class to tackle issues of the health of our democracy. Long before the expenses scandal (or the dodgy looking events in Falkirk) trust in politics and politicians were on the slide- and very little has been done to arrest it. Let’s put aside MPs pay for a moment and look at some other measures that we need to radically reform of our politics.
Instead of major reform we desperately needed we’ve had insipid electoral reform proposals- by the way I voted yes for AV not because I love AV but because we need to start changing our electoral system to make it fairer- and fixed term Parliaments. Yes, there has been a strengthening of the select committee role which has been welcome and a number of petitions have been used to trigger parliamentary debates- although the rules and procedures are too hard to follow and leave too much discretion in the hands of the government- but not enough has been done.
In no particular order and not trying to be exhaustive here are some issues we need to address: political funding reform is stuck in the mud (I am personally against state funding- I think the market should decide whether a party deserves support not the state) – this needs unsticking with clear limits and total transparency for all donations, loans and financial arrangements (including with trade unions). We need open primaries for all seats; a proper recall mechanism for MPs- the people choosing not MPs letting the people choose when to kick their MP- it works in the US; a fairer voting system with everyone’s vote carrying the same weight; the House of Commons needs to look different- our MPs need to look like the rest of us (as a start I would drop the rule that means all men must wear ties but we also need a better diversity of people and people who have had real non-political jobs before entering the House- I would also redesign the shape and layout of the chamber to make it less confrontational) and change how votes in Parliament are counted- surely we should be using technology from the 21st not 18th century; the same is true of vote counting in parliamentary seats (speaks someone who has sat up unit 3am many times with lots of volunteers and bank staff earning extra money to hand count paper votes in a sports centre!); we need to end £30k golden goodbyes to MPs who lose their seats; boundary changes needs to be made to make all seats of equal size and population; and yes, we do need to look at the pay of MPs. We need a package of reform that covers all aspects of democracy from candidate selection to part funding; how our votes are cast and how they are counted. This current lamentable debate about MPs pay is trivialising the issue of real reform.
There is never a good time to look at MPs pay to be increased. That is why an independent body should- does- now look at this. Yet the politicians can’t help but get involved again and try to force their view on the system. We need an honest debate about what we should pay people who work often 90 hours week, across seven days with massive sacrifices to home life and privacy. But I would rather we did that at the same time as tackling the wider issues of the health of our democracy. As with all things in life we need fairness. A fair electoral system. A fair way of parties financing themselves and choosing their candidates. A fair wage for MPs.
We need to start asking the right questions about how we strength our democracy and then perhaps we will get a full and fair answer. Whatever the motivation of Mr Milliband in raising some of these issues today and whatever the political outcome for him and his party we should welcome the opportunity to debate these issues in full.