The Romantic English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, quipped that “In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly”. The public debate over MPs’ pay and perks risks suffering the same fate – but there is a way to restore faith, and improve the value-for-money of Parliament.
Sir Ian Kennedy, the head of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, is right to conclude that MPs need a pay rise, to benchmark it properly against other comparable public sector jobs, and to prevent Parliament becoming the preserve of the rich. But, it would confirm every worst prejudice people have of politicians, to implement it at a time when all other public servants face a wage freeze or one per cent cap. I won’t accept a rise in those circumstances. Implementation should be put back until the current strictures are eased (which won’t be until 2016 at the earliest).
Kennedy notes the package won’t cost the taxpayer a penny more, because other perks are being canned. But our ambition should be to cut the cost of politics – which we could do by reducing the number of MPs by 10 per cent and cutting the number of Ministers by a third. In 2012, David Cameron tried to reduce the number of MPs by 50, as part of the boundary equalisation process. He was blocked by Labour and the Liberal Democrats
Still, the cost of politics is only half the picture. The public don’t think that MPs deliver value for money, because too many don’t do what they say, or say what they mean. The way to raise Parliament’s stock is to encourage more conviction politicians and fewer party-political clones. Three steps would make a disproportionate difference.
First, select more candidates by open primary, preferably by postal ballot to maximise local involvement. This allows anyone who registers – not just members of the political party – to come to the final selection meeting and have their say on the candidate. Having gone through the process, I know it leaves an indelible mark. People don’t necessarily want a maverick or compulsive rebel. But they do want to be persuaded that – if push comes to shove – you will back your conscience and constituents, not just roll over and ape the party line.
Second, a robust right to recall an MP, who behaves improperly or neglects his duties, would strengthen public confidence, and focus MPs’ minds on their local accountability. The coalition has introduced recall-lite, which lets Parliament filter the decision. This month, Zac Goldsmith MP proposed beefing it up, by allowing 20 per cent of the local electorate to trigger a formal vote directly. Backbench MPs backed the idea by 127 to 17. Now would be a good time for the Government to take it up.
Third, having strengthened the independence of MPs, Parliament as a whole needs to push back on the creeping power of government. That includes greater Parliamentary control over its own business, so the Whips (the party political enforcers in Parliament) can’t shove awkward issues off the agenda. For years, the Whips have honed the French philosopher Paul Valéry’s definition of politics as “the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them”. In my own experience, they assiduously ensured there has never been Parliamentary time to debate any amendment to legislation I have tabled, from extradition to deportation reform, despite strong cross-party support in each case.
Likewise, Bill committees – which consider the nuts and bolts of new laws – should be elected by the House, not hand-picked by Whips for their malleability. And, by cutting the number of MPs on the government’s payroll – and scything off the number of posts outside ministerial rank, which are nonetheless offered on condition of voting loyalty – we could reduce political patronage, leaving Parliament a commensurably stronger bulwark against an overbearing executive.
Reviving public trust in politics is not impossible. According to IPSOS Mori, public confidence in MPs has risen three per cent since the expenses scandal in 2009. Yet, at 23 per cent, there is still a long way to go. Cutting the cost of politics is part of the answer, but improving its value matters too.
The political class can, though, take a measure of solace. There is one profession that consistently scores worse on public trust than MPs – which, at 21 per cent, is the journalists who berate them.