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.)