MPs get paid "less than headteachers [and] much less than middle ranking and senior people in local government" said Jack Straw on Radio 4's The World This Weekend, defending the Parliamentary watchdog Ipsa's recommendation that MPs' annual salary should rise £7,600 to £74,000 after the 2015 election.
Right now, when we are all feeling the pinch, the idea of paying our politicians £74k is hard to stomach. MPs facing re-election in 18 months time are acutely aware of this. It's no surprise then that many MPs (including all three main party leaders) have been highly critical of the proposed pay rise.
Yet, regardless of their pay, personality, or proficiency, our MPs exert a massive impact on our lives. It is MPs who stopped us supporting military action in Syria, who introduced tuition fees and supported the invasion of Iraq. Given the momentous nature of their role and how hard their job can be I for one am open to increasing their pay. If, and it is a very big 'if', they become much, much better at their job.
First and foremost, their job is to represent our views to parliament. And on this score, the vast majority of MPs fall laughably short of the mark. In the internet age, when most people interact on Facebook, Twitter or at the very least use email, the MPs' surgery is an out-dated, inconvenient, and often almost entirely invisible form of engagement. Offering this as the primary form of interaction with their constituents in today's online world is beyond a joke; it's professionally reprehensible. In any other job this would be held up as professional misconduct, and there would be a serious threat of withdrawing the MP's right to practice. However, in politics, there is no sense of 'good professional practice'.
I listen to my local Tory MP regularly, both his public statements and informally as we both catch the first off-peak train into London on a Monday morning. He is a nice man, but not brilliantly well informed. I spoke to some Conservative party advisers about this, and they said "well if he was as clever as you Richard, he'd be wanting to get on to the front bench and everything would get quite unmanageable". I disagree on two counts. First, I think my MP is a 'clever' man. And secondly, there needs to be a greater expectation from our parties that MPs will be well versed on the issues of the day. I'm not expecting my MPs to become a geo-political guru. But I would like him to show a little more wide-eyed enthusiasm for understanding the world around him. It is totally unreasonable for us to pay £74k a year for people who do not feel duty bound to be as well informed as they can. This includes reading something other than the Telegraph if you're a Tory, or the Guardian if you're something else.
Becoming a great representative is well within the reach of all MPs, but it is not something innate. It requires MPs learning the skills of public engagement that would enable them to exploit the riches offered by todays social media and public engagement techniques. MPs surgeries should be exciting epicentres of local democracy, buzzing with online input and a sense of real possibility. They are not. MPs websites should be the first place you go to when you've got an idea of how to improve your community. For good reason, most of us have never even visited them. MPs speeches should be inspiring occasions we queue up for, and people immediately post on YouTube for posterity. Obviously no one bothers going at the moment.
So, I am happy to pay an extra £7,600 to our politicians, indeed I would jump at the chance, but only on the condition that MPs double their efforts to enter the twenty first century and inject new life into our local democracies.