When Jimmy Walker, the Jazz-era mayor of New York, was challenged on his policy of raising his own salary from $25,000 to $40,000 he is said to have quipped: "That's cheap! Imagine how much it would be if I worked full time!" And with that any many other bon mots, the legendary Irish dandy cantered to reelection, before of course resigning half-way through a corruption trial that had been brought against him.
As our MPs are currently thinking about a pay rise (albeit admittedly one that an external body is awarding to them, rather than one ordered themselves...), it may be useful to contemplate Walker's comment with regard to our legislators. What exactly is it MPs do? How many hours does that involve? And if it is a full-time job, how do so many of them manage to hold down so many other commitments alongside? David Miliband was reported to have earned close to a million after losing the Labour leadership election alongside his work as an MP, and has now left parliament for a £300,000 job at the IRC, another stop on the gravy train. But imagine how much his salary would have been if he worked full time!
MPs need to decide if it is indeed a full-time job that they're doing. There are arguments either way - I can understand that spending some time of their year working a normal job in their constituency can help keep their feet on the ground, but frankly, most of these jobs just aren't 'normal'. They're gravy train positions like the many ones being held by Miliband before he went off to join the Thunderbirds. Far from keeping MPs' feet on the ground, they're more likely to inflate their egos and it's unclear how much this corporate money influences the decisions of our representatives.
Mayor Jimmy Walker was notorious for spending beyond his means and only being able to do so because of the financial support of his 'friends'. How different is that to MPs, with one eye on their future after parliament, or external work during, giving favours to corporations? The start of a New Year is often used as a time for reflection, which in most people stimulates unrealistic gym schedules. For the MPs, I think it would be useful for them to think about why they do their job, and whether the increased remuneration is appropriate for the work they do. If they feel it is justified, then they need to come out and say so, and if not, they need to table a motion against it (Labour MP John Mann's motion calling for the pay increase to be limited to 1% in line with the public sector attracted just ten signatures..).
Currently, we have a fudge, where most realise it's politically toxic to accept a whacking pay rise when they're simultaneously cutting £25billion from state spending as announced today - not quite as bad as 'Gentleman' Jimmy raising his pay during the Great Depression, but still a pretty sharp contrast. A parade of MPs have already come out and blustered that they would not accept the increased pay, and that they would give any rise to charity. Incidentally, it's exactly the tack that Walker employed, though his donation isn't particularly remembered by history. The real trouble with this course of action is that they're simply calculating that initial outrage will wear itself out, then the year after they can simply cancel the charity subscription. The whole thing is very patronising, and bad for democracy. From the fact that the issue seems to have been dropped for the moment, it seems our representatives are hoping it will go away of its own accord. A cynic might post that posting the IPSA report before the Christmas break is a good way to have it forgotten.
If MPs are against the pay increase, they can stop it; after all, they set up IPSA in the first place. If they're not, and I suspect many of them actually tacitly support getting more money (and on a human level, wouldn't you?), they need to say so. And they need to justify it. Needing to do so could be the best stimulus for reform of how money is influencing politics at the moment. Real reform doesn't happen often because it stirs up things that vested interests would prefer left alone, but failure to do so will just lead to even greater voter cynicism with the political pigs at the trough. As 'Beau James' Walker observed, "a reformer is a guy who rides through the sewer in a glass-bottomed boat." And he should know; the glass-bottomed boat eventually came for him.
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