Can we stop talking about MPs’ salaries yet?

This post was written by Owen on July 3, 2013
Posted Under: Democracy

Perhaps the most depressing indictment of our profoundly messed-up political culture is the never-ending fixation with MPs’ expenses. Never mind what’s happening to the welfare state, the economy or the climate, the hot political issue of the moment – of pretty much every moment now – is who claimed what on expenses and how outraged we should all be about it. I realise that it’s facile to simply dismiss an issue just because you think there are more important things to worry about (since you could presumably dismiss literally every issue on the same grounds apart from whichever issue you had decided was the most important) but the amount of media coverage given to this is wildly out of proportion when compared to the paltry column inches devoted to countless other subjects which are of actual political importance. (And particularly when so much of the coverage is so poor, incidentally. The Guardian had a rather sneering editorial on Monday which pointed out that MPs’ pay had gone up by 50% in real terms since 1979, but failed to mention that wages across the country had done exactly the same thing over that period.) The maximum possible raise being considered is £10,000. With 650 MPs in the Commons, that’s a total increase in spending of £6.5m per year, or a bit under 1/100,000th of total annual public spending (which is just under £700bn as of 2011-12). So the first thing to realise is that, considered solely in terms of its impact on the state of the public finances, a 15% pay rise for MPs is completely, utterly, indisputably insignificant. Hell, you could go wild and give MPs a 150% pay rise – or cut their salaries entirely – and that would still be true.

The inevitable riposte to this from those who think MPs should be paid less is that it’s a straw man – that it’s absurd to suggest that anyone’s arguing about MPs’ salaries because of the absolute cost. This could be true, but I’m genuinely unsure. If there was a poll which asked people to put a figure on what fraction of public spending went on paying MPs, I’m guessing most people would pick a number a hell of a lot higher than one-thousandth of a percentage point – in much the same way as people tend to wildly over-estimate the share of benefits spending which goes on Jobseekers’ Allowance. (I’m not suggesting that either of these are because the electorate are stupid, incidentally – it’s pretty obviously a reflection of the media coverage which both topics get.)

However, it’s true that there are better arguments against giving MPs a pay rise than this, most obviously – and importantly – the fact that despite MPs’s frustrations about their ostensibly poor pay, their current salary of £66,000(ish) per year easily puts them in the top 3% of earners in the country. Historically the introduction of salaries for MPs was a key demand of working class Labour MPs (and was implemented by the Liberals in 1911) as it made it possible for people who weren’t independently wealthy to enter Parliament, but it’s hard not to wonder if the current griping by Members about the supposed paucity of their pay is – paradoxically – down to Parliament still being dominated by the middle and upper classes. MPs who think they’re paid poorly are likely to be comparing themselves to others with similar (privileged) backgrounds and those they mix with socially, rather than to the average earner in the country as a whole.

It should also be remembered, though, that while MPs might earn a lot more than most people, they also tend to work a hell of a lot longer hours as well. The Guardian cites data suggesting that the average MP works 69 hours a week for the 30 weeks a year when Parliament is sitting, and 42 hours per week when it’s not. (The latter figure is a few decades old but seems to be the only one available.) Totalling up those hours (the Guardian doesn’t include time spent working when Parliament isn’t sitting in its calculations) gives a total of just under 3,000 hours per year, and an hourly wage of £23.38. That’s still pretty generous – in the top 20% in the country, according to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings – but it’s perhaps a bit less obscene than it seems from just looking at the annual salary. Of course not all of them will work these hours, but 69 hours’ work in an average week is not to be sneezed at.

The other important thing to bear in mind about the whole MPs’ pay issue is that because it’s such a political football it can be put to some pretty dodgy purposes. The flipside of the argument that it’s inappropriate for MPs to have a pay rise while everyone else is suffering the effects of austerity is that keeping MPs’ salaries down provides political cover for the government when it cuts benefits and freezes public sector pay.

All things considered, I don’t actually have a strong view one way or the other on what MPs are paid. Mainly I just find it depressing that most of the arguments made on the issue are so poorly thought out, and that so much time is spent on it when in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t remotely matter. If I had to pick where I stand on the issue I’d say that Paul’s argument from a few months back that MPs’ pay is pretty similar to what other people in similar positions of responsibility get seems pretty persuasive,[*] but really I just wish we could all bring ourselves to care about it a little bit less.



[*] (Which is not to say that that level of pay is necessarily ethically justified, but it’s at least no worse than the rest of society.)

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Reader Comments

David Moss

I don’t think that this level of concern with MPs’ salaries is a bad thing. Even though (maybe) this level of concern relative to concern about other issues is a result of bad things about our political culture, that’s not to say that this level of concern is bad in itself. I would, in fact, say that it would be better if people were more concerned. It might well be ‘perverse’ (in an irrelevant way) that people are even more concerned about this than they are about the aid budget, but I suspect more concern about this political issue (pushing in the right direction) would be a good thing. I don’t generally buy the ‘distraction’ argument- that if people are worried about a political issue it generally makes them less politically engaged with another issue (quite possibly the reverse).

I think the most compelling positive reasons to think MPs’ salaries should be roughly average are the democratic benefits that would attend this. I don’t care about “desert.” Even better: they should receive a stipend to allow them to undertake the honour of being a public servant. By ‘negative reasons’ I have in mind simply the fact that I can’t see any reasons outside of desert why we should pay them much more than an ordinary salary.

#1 
Written By David Moss on July 4th, 2013 @ 11:44 am

I don’t care about desert either, don’t get me wrong – that’s why I put in that footnote at the end. I’m not necessarily dead set against the idea of cutting MPs’ pay either; I’m just really not convinced that the positive effects would outweigh the negatives.

As for whether the issue is a distraction or a way into wider political engagement, I’m afraid I’m not persuaded by your view here. I simply don’t see any evidence at all that – to take the most significant recent example – the expenses scandal a few years ago led to greater engagement with any other political issues. If anything it just served to reinforce people’s general disaffection with politics as far as I can see, to the extent that when there was a genuine corruption scandal not long afterwards that actually had implications for the democratic process, no one seemed to give a crap. (Cf this piece I wrote at the time: http://thethirdestate.net/2010/03/scandal-fatigue/)

#2 
Written By Owen on July 4th, 2013 @ 7:32 pm
David Moss

Without some appeal to desert I don’t see why we would pay them a higher salary rather than a lower one. The idea that we need high salaries to attract talent seems obviously false (e.g. many politicians already take a pay cut; politics is a high prestige, high power, intrinsically appealing job that many people would pay to do etc.)

I don’t need to defend the stronger claim that engagement on these issues encourages wider political engagement (so I won’t). But I don’t see the support for the claim that public interest in lowering MPs’ wages harmful. (As I say, it may be a ‘bad sign’, but that’s no reason at all to discourage interest in it, since it would not improve anything). Unless we have strong reason to think that interest in this issue is harmful to other issues we shouldn’t oppose what is (ex hypothesi) a campaign for the right thing.

The strongest bit of your position (to my mind) therefore rests on the possibility that calling for lowering MPs’ wages to an average sort of salary will encourage people to want to lower i) benefits or ii) public sector pay. The former seems crazy to me. That it might encourage opposition to lower public sector pay doesn’t seem wildly implausible (although I’ve not seen anyone connect the two ideas anywhere). But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere I think i) we should treat these cases very differently (the benefits of paying democratic representatives a close to average wage don’t apply to civil servants; the need for paying civil servants high wages doesn’t apply to MPs), ii) ordinary people can recognise that there are differences between these cases.

But practically speaking, even if calling for MPs to be paid only an average wage *did* encourage people to call for high public sector wages to be reduced too, I wouldn’t be too worried about this. Firstly, because we can probably carry on paying civil servants the necessary high amounts without too much fuss. Secondly, because there is no reason that I can see that saying “MPs should only earn an average wage” doesn’t put any pressure on lowering the wages of the public sector workers (the majority of whom are) on *less* than an average wage.

#3 
Written By David Moss on July 4th, 2013 @ 8:16 pm
Alex H

(Moving discussion from Facebook)

David – I disagree with the idea that because some people would pay to be MPs, that we should have salaries that reflect that. (those MPs that could in practice afford to pay are probably less representative of the wider population than you’d like)
And some people would pay to be doctors, some people would pay to be teachers etc – in any public service job, there are always some people who would pay for the privilege. It doesn’t mean we reduce their salaries as a consequence.

And in terms of attracting talent – look at someone like Sarah Wollaston, who is not perfect but arguably one of the more worthwhile members of the 2010 Tory intake, I can see her deciding that being an MP is sufficiently worthwhile to take the pay cut she did, but given her previous lifestyle/mortgage/three kids, think it’s less likely to imagine her taking the size of pay cut required if MPs salaries tracked the average pay.

So you’d increasingly have a Parliament that consisted of the independently wealthy (or those who did REALLY high paid jobs for 20 years and could then live off that for the rest of their lives) and those who were so passionate about power/politics that they didn’t care. (And this latter group is, in it’s own way, a group that are far less representative of the population as a whole than the middle classes are. Moreover, underlying this entire argument for me is a desire to reduce the ludicrously high proportion of MPs who have spent their entire lives in Westminster – which only happens if you increase the number of people in Parliament who have done ‘real jobs’ outside the politics/think tanks/(gulp) civil service bubble)

And fyi as someone who gets paid more than the average wage by the public sector, if I wanted to significantly reduce public sector wages, I wouldn’t focus on MPs – there are huge parts of the public sector were wages don’t track talent/effort put in, but I think that applies far less to those who work in Parliament.

@Owen – if you take age/under-employment into account, I imagine the 3% probably translates to 20% of their cohort. And I would argue that less than half of the population are sufficiently hard-working, competent, articulate – sometimes out of choice, sometimes out of lack of capacity, sometimes out of lack of opportunity.

@Sean@Owen – I agree with your point about class power and the distorting effect on policy of it pre-dominantly being made by those with narrow life experiences. But I’m not sure how reducing MPs salaries helps with this.
I would argue that the make of the executive of political parties is much more of an issue. (and if you’re Labour, then the reduction in MPs from the trade union movement – Falkirk notwithstanding)

#4 
Written By Alex H on July 5th, 2013 @ 12:40 am
Sean

That ‘in its own way’ does quite a bit of work, although I basically agree – I don’t really think shifting MPs salaries one way or the other will fix anything. I just wish we were talking more the underlying structure of political power (and yes, power is really seated more in the parties, the media, think tanks etc. than it is in parliament) and less about attracting ‘talent’, where ‘talent’ is judged by the capacity to earn lots of money.

I can sympathise somewhat with wanting to get MPs in from outside the bubble, but if what you end up meaning by that is bringing in more top earners for whom 66K is small enough to put them off, I’m not interested. It’s just a different kind of bubble.

Btw, your 20% figure is optimistic. ONS has the 90th percentile salary (not income) for 40-49 year olds as 53,671 in 2012. Add on an inner London premium of, say, 8,000 (the difference at the top of the classroom teacher’s pay scale, which is very close to this figure – 56K outside London, 64K inside), which is probably a bit overgenerous since the original figure will already be affected by London salaries, and you still only reach 61.5K. It’s going to be something like top 6-8%.

#5 
Written By Sean on July 5th, 2013 @ 9:26 am
Alex H

@Sean – you used evidence?? That’s definitely cheating, but point taken.
One quick point.
- we have awful social mobility in this country, but it’s still possible for people from a range of different backgrounds to reach that 6-8% (and although I acknowledge that someone from a non-privileged background who has recently come to earn 80k is privileged in a sense, I don’t think it automatically makes them sufficiently bourgeois that they can’t use their previous experience as context when they’re an MP)

#6 
Written By Alex H on July 5th, 2013 @ 10:33 am
Sean

It’s possible, sure (has been to some extent for centuries!), although there’s plenty of luck involved. Discussion of social mobility is a bit tangential though. As I said to Owen on FB, awareness/ignorance of the experience of poverty etc. among MPs isn’t my main concern.

#7 
Written By Sean on July 5th, 2013 @ 10:52 am
David Moss

Alex:

I clearly don’t say “some people would pay to be MPs: this means, in itself, we should reflect this in lower salaries.” I make the much less controversial argument that “many people find the job of MP very appealing due to prestige, power etc. (indeed some would pay to do it!) therefore, we should not think that we need to pay 3 normal salaries to attract talented people to the job.” IMO the argument is clearly valid, the only question is the empirical one about how many people find it how appealing at a certain level of pay.

I also make it unambiguous that I’m not proposing that we should pay MPs nothing (or demand they pay us!). An average wage must certainly be paid so that people can afford to do it etc. So none of the “independently wealthy” argument applies. (As an aside, I don’t care if politicians are “unrepresentative” in that they are more passionate about politics than usual: what kind of madman would care about representativeness in this sense??)

There may be some MPs who would do the job for £66k but not for around £30k. I think the far bigger factor (among others) putting people off the job is that most people think that politicians are corrupt scumbags: so a net boon. I’m sure current politicians disproportionately believe they could not do the job for less than they receive (in the same way that everyone reliably thinks they need slightly more income than they actually have to be satisfied), but I find it entirely implausible that people in general would lose interest in becoming an MP if the pay was “only” equal to or greater than most people’s income.
And as I made clear repeatedly: I don’t care about reducing the public sector wage bill or paying a lesser wage so as to “track talent/effort” or desert of any other kind.

P.S. Looking at the stats yesterday, it seemed that 14.5% of 2010 MPs were from an occupation in politics (and 2.9% civil service), by far the biggest category was “business”- as Sean suggests, that’s not an obvious improvement and it’s not obvious to me that paying what is to most people a staggeringly enormous salary is the best way to attract a wider portion of the population (I strongly suspect it has the reverse effect).

#8 
Written By David Moss on July 5th, 2013 @ 11:00 am
Sean

David – I think madman is pretty harsh; substitute ‘power-hungry’ for ‘passionate about politics’ and the issue is clear.

#9 
Written By Sean on July 5th, 2013 @ 1:02 pm
Sean

David again (no edit function) – I doubt reducing the salary would make a huge amount of difference to people’s opinion of politicians. The negative trend there predates the expenses scandal. And if it did work, I’m not at all persuaded that would be a good thing – giving people reason to feel better about politicians doesn’t really appeal when, personal corruption and money-grubbing aside, they have very good reason to distrust them on political grounds.

#10 
Written By Sean on July 5th, 2013 @ 1:13 pm
David Moss

@Sean

Well I’m only being “harsh” to a hypothetical person who I don’t think exists, so that’s fine. Wanting Parliament to *represent* the level of power-hungriness actually found in the general population is different from worrying that politicians are too power hungry. I don’t think anyone worries about people being passionate about power because of “representativeness.”

-

Certainly not all problems to do with attitudes towards politicians/politics would be solved by this. Antipathy predates expenses, but it does not predate high wages, big self-allocated pay rises and the (correct) perception that politicians are all rich members of the same club.

Politicians having an average wage would be strongly positive in a variety of respects: signalling that they view it as a privilege/public service; suggesting that they are not just in it for themselves/the money; making the politicians de facto a bit closer to those they represent; also making the office of MP appear a bit closer to (attainable to) ordinary citizens; it might also aid the politicians in feeling rather closer to those who elect them as well (and change other attitudes too) in positive respects, rather than a privileged club (though of course this is no panacea). Earning so much more than voters produces a host of opposing symbolic effects, of course.

Saying that anything at all might help public disengagement at a time when public disengagement is so low obviously might seem naive, since surely nothing would easily right this wrong. But it seems clear that this move would likely produce an improvement in these attitudes. To see the centrality and importance of this issue we just need to look at the attention this issue gets and how often, in explaining why they don’t trust politicians/politics, people will cite expenses/greed as the sign that they cannot be trusted.

As to the idea that it would be a bad thing to increase trust in politicians at a time when there are other reasons to distrust them: well, I don’t think that paying MPs a normal salary would produce an arbitrary, unmediated increase in trust for politicians across the board. It would remove some legitimate reasons to distrust them, remove some opportunity for irrationally hating them, maybe make them more trustworthy and representative (in the morally significant ways), but I don’t think it would stop people from distrusting politicians on other appropriate grounds in other, appropriate ways. We can still distrust them for breaking manifesto pledges, cynical angling for election etc. but it would help remove some blanket distrust in one important respect.

#11 
Written By David Moss on July 5th, 2013 @ 2:04 pm
Sean

‘Antipathy predates expenses, but it does not predate high wages, big self-allocated pay rises and the (correct) perception that politicians are all rich members of the same club.’

I don’t think you want to turn to history for what you’re advocating. Partly because there’s always been antipathy-with-good-reason to some extent (clear in, say, Middlemarch) and partly because this has a fair amount to do with the erosion of social norms of respect/deference towards the establishment, which is part of much broader and longer-term social changes than the perception of greed in MPs (and certainly isn’t something I’m going to mourn).

As to everything else – I’ve no investment in removing any aspect of distrust in politicians. A better Westminster with mutual trust and respect between politicians and the people they represent might be a nice thought, but it’s highly implausible for reasons that have nothing to do with public opinion of MPs.

That’s not to say I don’t want people to be politically engaged. I do. But not through good relationships with their MPs.

#12 
Written By Sean on July 5th, 2013 @ 3:06 pm
David Moss

I’m not “turning to history” to support my claim, just responding to your historical argument that antipathy towards politicians predates expenses: true, but there remain plenty of reasons why this antipathy can be linked to the high pay and suspicion of avarice of politicians (and so we can reasonably think that MPs not receiving very high wages, distant from the incomes of most ordinary people would have an effect).

I don’t think that broader reduction in deference to the establishment is the major driver of the shifts in attitudes towards politicians/formal politics we’ve seen. For one thing, though there are longer trends, there’s been a significant decline more recently and also a shift in more specific responses, such as whether voters think that MPs represent their interests, can be trusted to act for the good of the country, listen to what they have to, only support the interests of the elite etc.

I think we can easily disentangle, in principle, positive changes towards ‘Critical Citizens’, post-formal politics etc. from more more negative cynicism towards politicians that is not at all systemic or critical but just moralistic, individualistic etc. To return to the original moral of Owen’s piece: we would be better able to move on from an unhealthy, personalised suspicion that politicians are personally screwing us over (by paying themselves too much, rather than by supporting neoliberal reforms), if MPs received something on the order of an ordinary kind of wage.

As I argued for before: while we wouldn’t want to simply make the public trust MPs more (arbitrarily), we *should* be concerned with the cynical kind of suspicion of politicians that just feeds disenfranchisement and in a way that is highly class specific.

#13 
Written By David Moss on July 5th, 2013 @ 3:22 pm
Sean

What do you mean by recently? I wouldn’t deny that the expenses scandal has had an effect, but you said you were talking longer-term than that before. There’s a whole load of potential confounding factors here as well.

As for your last point – why should we? I’m really puzzled why you think this cynicism significantly disenfranchises people. They certainly are disenfranchised, but I can’t imagine how convincing them (even with good reason) that MPs aren’t on the take would help with that.

#14 
Written By Sean on July 5th, 2013 @ 3:49 pm
David Moss

Trust (and the other measures) has certainly declined more in the past 10 years (and esp. post expenses) than the long term post-war trends of decreasing deference to authority.

But let us not get distracted by this- you brought up the idea that the “negative trend there predates the expenses scandal” against my claim that we might reduce negative perception of politicians by paying them an average wage. All I say in response to that is i) even though there is a longer term trend, this doesn’t refute my point since there was plenty reason to view MPs as avaricious even pre-expenses, ii) nevertheless there has been a further marked decline in trust more recently. I’m happy to discuss the details more if you have any specific objections, but otherwise I don’t really know what to say, since it was you who raised the question of these trends as an objection.

There are confounding factors, but luckily we don’t have to rely on just observing trends. We can infer from the fact (which presumably prompted this article) that MPs’ wages are attracting significant attention and being linked to the conclusion that MPs’ are greedy cheats, that MPs’ wages are a significant part of the perception of them as greedy cheats.

OK, so first point is that (dis)trust in politic(ian)s strongly associated with political (dis)engagement/participation and both of these things are more prevalent among lower SES individuals. For more information see my PhD. Perceiving politicians as untrustworthy and purely self-serving provides a good/bad reason/excuse variously, for disengagement. Relatedly, and secondly, the perception (produced in large part by the media in various ways) of MPs as individually greedy and self-serving men (sic.) in it for the money encourages a negative and superficial dismissal and withdrawal from politics. I don’t think much of the general culture of cynicism towards politics is a good thing (spurring critical alternative political action), mostly it’s just contributing to people’s disengagement.

#15 
Written By David Moss on July 5th, 2013 @ 5:20 pm
David Moss

^Not that this is just about public opinion (also improving MPs’ practice, encouraging a wider section of society to become MPs). Also, though it’s easy to raise doubts about *these* benefits, I’m just not seeing any convincing arguments as to how we gain anything from paying them 3x more than an average wage (which you’d think would be a very salient consideration).

#16 
Written By David Moss on July 5th, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

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