MPs’ pay and asking the impossible


French anthropologist Bruno Latour suggests that politicians will always disappoint us because the way they talk is to win support, rather than to reproduce the multiple truths of their whole constituency or, even more challengingly, the whole nation. Our expectations are contradictory in at least two ways. We want them to be like us (ordinary, anti-party political, saying what they really think) but we also expect them to express and embody the vast and diverse opinion within British society with coherence. Political parties, and more specifically their leaders and whips, ensure coherence of action by cajoling and begging their own side for support despite endless disagreements.

We want to have more women MPs but we may be disappointed in that too while the work is inimical to happy family life. We expect several jobs of them – governing, raising taxes and making laws, scrutinising, representing constituents, championing national causes and their area, protecting the constitution, and so on – and to live and work in two places and to survive on a salary that does not cover childcare costs. Many professions are underpaid, or demanding, or excessively inflexible about when you work; very few are all three at the same time. Lower ranks of the armed services may be equally tough on family life but the consequences of a less diverse workforce in the forces are less dire for our democracy.

Those are some of the conclusions that I am currently writing up in a book about MPs’ work. I am glad that in the debate on MPs’ pay the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority identifies the need for more information about what MPs do: this book will answer that directly. They have a point when they invite MPs to be more accountable about their achievements but I think when they suggest ‘Annual Reports’ they are being too prescriptive. My own MP tells his constituents exactly what he is up to in Westminster and in our area via twitter, blogs, podcasts and email newsletters, which are topical and easy to read. MPs should report to us but in varied, creative and accessible ways.

The fuss about IPSA’s recommendations is short-sighted. They are a proposing a package of pay and pensions that saves the taxpayer money, with pay going up to bring MPs closer to comparable public sector jobs and pensions going down. After the expenses scandal, some may be tempted to punish MPs, but parliament is too important; rather than undermine it, we should invest in a precious institution that protects us from tyranny. An important job should be properly remunerated. That politicians talk indignantly about their own pay rise is fine and dandy, because that is what they have to do, but IPSA should take no notice and go ahead with their proposals.