This week an impending political collision course began to take shape. Having outlined its plans a few months ago, over the weekend the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority confirmed its intention to recommend a one-off 11% pay rise for MPs, to take effect after the 2015 general election. IPSA - the body set up to regulate MPs' remuneration after the disastrous expenses scandal of 2009 - had previously said that it was looking at increasing the current basic salary of around £66,000 to anywhere between £73,365 and £83,430, but it has settled on a lower figure "in recognition of the current difficult economic circumstances". Nevertheless, the planned rise to £74,000 has been deemed necessary given that in recent years MPs' pay has fallen behind that of comparable professionals in other industries. After 2015 IPSA proposes that parliamentary wages should increase annually in line with average UK earnings.
Predictably, these plans have provoked outrage. The general public - understandably - is shocked that its elected representatives, whom it already deeply mistrusts, should enjoy such a sharp rise at a time when many are forced to make do with wage freezes or negligible increases. The leadership of all three main political parties - desperate not to get on the wrong side of voters over such an emotive issue close to election time - have parroted the anticipated indignation. Lib Dem Treasury Minister Danny Alexander urged IPSA to reconsider, saying the rise would be "wholly inappropriate" in the wider climate of caps in the public sector. Conservative Defence Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed that he would not be accepting the increase, insisting that it was "not the right moment" to do so. Most strikingly of all, Labour leader Ed Miliband has called for cross-party talks and declared that the changes "cannot go ahead".
It is hardly surprising that Miliband should use strong language to object to IPSA's recommendations: after all, the Labour leader has gambled his political life on winning the argument on the so-called 'cost of living crisis'. Such bluster conceals an uncomfortable reality for politicians: IPSA is a beast of their making; and short of abolishing the body entirely there is nothing they can realistically do to stop its recommendations from becoming law. The whole rationale of its inception was the public interest in taking decisions about MPs' remuneration out of the hands of parliament: as noted by Conservative backbencher Sir Peter Bottomley, it would therefore be "impractical" to abolish IPSA on the basis that politicians do not agree with its independent decision-making process.
The reality is that at their core, the pay proposals are objective and not unreasonable. It is undeniably true that MPs' basic salaries have fallen behind those of highly-qualified professionals in other industries such as doctors, lawyers and senior teachers. A virtually ignored, but arguably far more relevant, aspect of the IPSA recommendations is the scaling down of controversial benefits previously enjoyed by parliamentarians, in relation to things like pensions, dinner allowances, transport and second homes. Instead of enacting politically dangerous wage increases, parliamentary committees prior to 2009 turned a blind eye to far-reaching expenses abuse. This short-sighted attitude ended in disaster. But it remains the case that there needs to be some way in which MPs' remuneration rivals that of other highly skilled professionals.
A central hypocrisy here is that people want elected representatives that work for comparatively little; and yet they also want representatives that are highly capable and fairly reflect wider society. The rationale of the pay argument is the symbolic value of MPs being in touch with the constituents whom they serve. While this ideal is highly attractive in theory, it is unworkable in practice. Most people, for better or worse, choose a career path that offers the greatest financial reward for their skills. That is the society we live in - one in which individualism has long since replaced the principles of collectivism and social cohesiveness more associated with a bygone age. If it is agreed that we require MPs of the highest calibre in order to form the government or hold that government to account, then there is no other option but to pay them in line with comparable professionals in other high-pressure industries. Without this parity, two things result. Firstly, we are left with less able MPs since the brightest minds instead turn their skills to becoming doctors, lawyers or business people. Secondly, due to the highly disruptive and expense-oriented nature of life as an MP, parliament is broadly composed of individuals from wealthy backgrounds who find it more difficult to empathise with ordinary citizens. Sound familiar?
While the moral fairness of everyone at all levels of society being 'in it together' does have certain value, it surely must play second fiddle to the effective working of parliament and government. To have the best minds running our country we need to pay them accordingly. It could be viewed as unfair that at a time of widespread pay freezes and stagnant wage growth MPs look set to benefit from an 11% pay increase on top of what is already a healthy salary. On the other hand parliamentarians do more pressurised, time-consuming jobs than the vast majority of us, and more important jobs than all of us. While an elaborate expenses system needlessly complicates things, a basic rate of pay attracting the ablest among us to the profession is a necessity. Since MPs' pay has clearly fallen below this level, a one-off increase - combined with a rolling back of the expenses structure - is entirely reasonable. The message this conveys in the current climate may not be perfect, but sometimes substance needs to trump symbolism.