The Blog

Why Do We Pay Our Politicians Any Salary At All?

I was at the anti-World Cup protest in São Paulo last weekend and one placard in particular caught my eye, asking why half of the government can't be fired and the cash saved used for better schools and hospitals? This is a universal concern.

I was at the anti-World Cup protest in São Paulo last weekend and one placard in particular caught my eye, asking why half of the government can't be fired and the cash saved used for better schools and hospitals?

This is a universal concern.

Last year, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) announced a recommendation that British Member's of Parliament should get an 11% pay rise in 2015. Naturally this caused outrage amongst members of the public who have only seen a decline in earnings since the financial crash six years ago.

Ipsa argues that MP salaries have fallen behind where they should be, so the increase is more nuanced and involves a one-off pay hike to be followed by future increases linked to average earnings. In addition their recommendations tighten up the rules on pensions and expenses.

Of course, the detail appears to have been lost in the wider debate about why we pay politicians anything at all. But seeing a completely different system where I live now makes me feel that the British should be more appreciative of Ipsa - before this body existed the politicians used to just decide on their own pay rise.

The Brazilian protestors have far more justification to be out of patience with their political masters. These representatives fly back and forth to Brasilia earning more than their political peers in the USA or UK. A salary of over 40 times the minimum wage is just the start. Add on health cover, dental care, expenses, free travel allowance, and a generous housing allowance and it looks like more than a good deal to be a politician in Brazil.

Most employees in Brazil get a 13th salary, meaning in December they receive two months pay as a Christmas bonus. Somehow, the politicians get paid a 13th, 14th, and a 15th salary - did Santa Claus decide on this bonus structure?

And that's just the cash they can legally claim. At present, almost 200 members of the Brazilian Congress are facing charges in trials overseen by the Federal Tribunal. Yes, a third of Congress members face a trial for one reason or another.

Brazilians really do have more to be annoyed about than the British, but paying politicians anything at all remains controversial.

A recent graphic I saw circulating on Facebook showed how Swiss MPs earned nothing at all and contrasted the money-grabbing thieves representing other nations. Of course these images are easy to forward on to friends without ever once checking the facts.

Swiss Federal Assembly members work on parliamentary matters for only a short period of the year, so they have a regular job that they combine with duties in parliament - a bit like local councillors in the UK. Of course, many Swiss want their politicians to go full-time rather than combining leadership of the nation with their responsibility to the boss who pays their salary.

At the heart of this issue is the professionalisation of politics. The citizens of ancient Athens could contribute to the political council, yet were only ever allowed to serve for two years. Political life was in addition to the 'real' world and not a career in itself.

But without a salary, the only representatives who would stand for office would be the independently wealthy, meaning that politics would be entirely unrepresentative. It is healthy to encourage people from all walks of life to engage in all levels of political office.

The opposition BJP party in India has nominated Narendra Modi as their candidate for Prime Minister in the forthcoming general election. He has been mocked for starting out in life selling tea, but he has made a virtue of his own humble roots - mocking his mockers for their class obsession.

Surely tea sellers should be able to become Prime Minister if they can do the job? But without a salary no poor or working class person will ever enter into politics, hence the need for an independent body like Ipsa to decide what they should be paid - in the UK at least.

Perhaps the real problem is not pay, it is the professionalism of politics as an industry that the general public really dislike.

What if we took a lesson from the ancient Athenians and restricted MPs to a single term so they aimed to achieve something real during their term in office other than just being re-elected?

Or why not place a minimum age of (say) 40 on those who want to sit in parliament so they must have already built a career before their time in politics? Plato argued that to become a wise leader requires a lifetime of learning.

We cannot escape the fact that politicians need to earn something because to pay them nothing would only make matters worse. Accepting this, how can we really improve the quality of people who choose to represent the public?

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