Monday, April 06, 2009

How about a cap on MPs income?

I know I've developed a bit of a reputation as an apologist for MPs alleged abuse of their expenses. I was certainly not very happy with the campaign to force them to publish their expenses for all of the reasons set out in this post here a while ago.

My key argument that I've yet to have countered - is that...
  • Demands for transparency are an effective way of hobbling any institution - particularly when the things that are revealed are subject to a high level of public commentary
  • MPs have rivals who seek to coerce and compete with them
  • Not applying the same standards of transparency to these rivals essentially empowers them against the people elected to represent all of us.
I'd add to that the other old chestnuts that we apologists have been digging up: That the current system arises out of numerous successive 'nod-and-a-wink' deals whereby MPs have been encouraged to take up various byzantine allowances as a means of getting them to accept salary rises that don't keep pace with other sectors.

The idea of springing full disclosure under such circumstances strikes me as an ambush that is bound to damage the reputation of parliament - and, by extension - democracy in the UK.

All of that said, I'd like to offer a counter-argument in mitigation. Chris - here - applies a standard Public Choice Theory explanation of why MPs are neither all bastards or all angels.

But that's not good enough really, is it? All of this seems to come from a very misanthropic and deterministic place - one where collective action is only ever the product of a calibrated set of incentives. One where there no situation is so bad that it's not made worse by rational attempts to solve the problem.

If I were an MP, I'd want to make a point of driving a bog-standard family saloon. I'd not want to spend my holidays in the Galapagos Islands watching Turtles fuck in the sun. I'd be happy with a couple of weeks in Ireland and a week in Marbella at best.

I wouldn't want to eat at anywhere as vulgar as The Ivy any more than I do now. For work, in the past, I've had to go to these places, and I can honestly say that they give me the creeps.

Wealth is positional as much as it is a means to acquire resources. Once you've got food clothes and shelter for you and your family, the rest is largely about chauvinism and one-upmanship.

If MPs are to promote a public service ethos - and Labour MPs really should be looking at this as a response to the changing attitudes towards the excessive lifestyles of the rich - then they need to start shifting this positioning around.

It's a state of mind: If people who were perceived as powerful were living ordinary lives, it would have a significant positive impact on the rest of us. I'd not go as far as the 'Workers Wages for MPs' argument, but I'd be happy to go close to it.

A few weeks ago, Sadie explained why respectable MPs salaries were a key Labour demand - a way of ensuring that the job wasn't just toff's monopoly. I'd turn it around now: Anyone can be an MP, but if they do, subject them to a salary ceiling. Get rid of the fiddles and raise the base, by all means - but cap it as well. That may shake a few Baronet's kids out of the place for a while?

On that basis, perhaps getting MPs to be seen to be managing their finances in a respectable way can be turned around in Parliament's favour?

Waddaya think?


mikeovswinton said...

And would MPs be contractually required to be full time? (ie No jobs working for -say- fag companies or whatever? I can't think why that one came to mind as I watched a certain Tory spokesperson pontificating on this issue.)I think I might well go for that one.

CS Clark said...

Sometimes - as with the idea of a salary cap here - I can't tell when you're serious and when you're kidding in an attempt to make libertarian types disagree so that you can go 'aha' at them.

Yes, I'd be happy with more salary and fewer expenses fiddles (my own jokey scheme involves paying them by the hour and making them clock in and out). But if you're right about this being used as a way of depowering MPs at the expense of rivals, then would you change that by changing the rules? Wouldn't there then be FOI requests, or other underhand means, leading to stories about some MPs squandering their salaries on frills and luxuries like tickets to the theatre and books while others happily and selflessly spend 50% of their salaries on stamps (because their heiress wives are paying for the holidays and yachts)?

But I don't agree with - or, in fact, really get - your argument about MPs trying to be more 'ordinary'. Margaret Beckett's caravan holidays didn't really seem to help people feel better about her use of power. To be honest, your examples sound more like a cry for them to show some taste instead of spending restraint.

PS - ' a very misanthropic and deterministic place' might be accurate, but is it really the politest way of describing Chris Dillow's mind?

Paulie said...

Heh, thanks for that CS. For once you've found an insult that wasn't calculated.

I don't think Chris' mind is that tawdry - I just find that theres something 'price-of-everything-and-value-of-nothing' about the idea of homo economicus - and in plenty of other walks of life, people behave in a professonal, responsible and responsive manner.

I don't see why MPs can't fall into that category, and most of them do so anyway in my experience.

I think the real answer is just to de-power their rivals. Make pressure groups and the media a good deal more transparent and accountable.

On the baiting of libertarians, I'm not sure if I've ever been as serious about all of this stuff as you think. I reckon blogging is good for flying kites as much as anything. I'd put my picture and my CV on this site if I ever wanted to 'own' anything I say here.