The growing dispute over MP’s outside jobs and interests must surely be a suitable occasion to take up the challenge from our Anglican Bishops in their recent Pastoral Letter, in which they urged us to step aside from partisanship and to analyse exactly what it is that will best promote the public good.
Rarely can this be more important than when the free composition of our ancient Parliament is being considered, in the light of what may – or may not – be breaches of the rules by two senior Parliamentarians
The Bishops’ letter covers a range of issues but must be relevant in relation to this topical question about securing the best representatives and legislators to serve the nation. The Bishops encourage us, whether we be Christian or not, to engage in the conversation, so Brother Ivo takes up the challenge.
The exercise begins with the hope that at the end of the enquiry, we shall be fearlessly represented by free men and women of character. competence, experience integrity and dedication to the task. Ultimately securing that outcome can never be about the making of rules but the exercise of judgement by those choosing the representatives , whether for the candidates list or ultimately by the wider electorate.
How we shall best ensure that those representing us bring the necessary qualities to their role is important. Breadth of representation by the most talented is also an important objective.
The exercise surely begins with personal responsibility, not of the would be politician but with the electorate. If we do not participate in political parties ourselves, not least in their selection committees and processes, then we can scarcely complain at the character of those in the House of Commons?
Jesus told us that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, and there was a range of character and both his disciples and early followers so perhaps we should predispose ourselves to the idea that diversity has more to offer than uniformity of any kind.
Love them or loath them, Sir Nicholas Soames, Dennis Skinner, David Lammy, Sajid Javid, Nadine Dorries and Sarah Teather are vastly different characters, and yet each represents a part of British life that needs representing in the House of Commons. Some have outside interests or affiliations, some have independent means, others do not. All types of MP bring important perspectives to a variety of questions, social, economic constitutional, and religious. It is odd to outwardly promote diversity whilst simultaneously excluding those whose personal circumstances don’t match a 9-5 working mentality.
Flexible and creative minds are surely to be encouraged?
It is the function performed rather than the uniformity of the mould that best guarantees the availability of a multiplicity of skills from which the welfare of the nation may be formed.
Brother Ivo is frankly concerned that to restrictive a drawing of rules will compress the pool from which MP’s may be drawn. It is, after all, a bit rum, for the present Party Leadership to fulminate against those who have second jobs.
David Cameron and Ed Miliband are both wealthy and have high earning wives: second jobs were always irrelevant to them. Nick Clegg has been described as one of the few people who can make both look positively middle class, having both inherited wealth, and a rich wife. George Osborne, Harriett Harman and many others are similarly hardly dependent on Parliamentary salary; Gordon Brown and George Galloway have been amongst the richest of outside earners whilst advocating for the common man. Bans on outside work will not touch any of these but may deter political engagement by many ordinary folk considering putting their careers on hold to contest seats that may never offer job security for an income less than many secondary head teachers enjoy.
There was a time, paradoxically when the estimation of MP’s was higher than it is today; it was when we did not pay MP’s at all.
Even that had its merits: if a man owned half of Berwickshire he might not empathise much with the rat catcher of Romford ( a task once performed by Brother Ivo’s grandfather!) but at least one did not have to worry over much about his selling his opinion to the highest bidder.
On the other hand, the paying of MP’s enabled the curmudgeonly Mr Skinner to bring an entirely different approach to the steering of the ship of state.
Every solution to the conundrum of how to remunerate and constrain our legislators has pluses and minuses, but we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater just to satisfy political spitefulness or to solve a passing problem of the moment.
An early question must surely be whether we want to promote a fully professionalised dedicated political class?
The polls suggest a public inconsistency, not to say immaturity.
At one and the same time. many of us seem to be simultaneously complaining that our MP’s are out of touch with ordinary life – whilst also insisting that they should spend all their time working in the Westminster bubble.
We need to flag up this weak thinking.
Neither do we seem to be entirely clear on what the task a “full time MP” might look like. Is it enough that they work 35 hours, 40 or 45 hours? If so, is it really so outrageous if they earn money outside of those times rather than say, watching Netflix? As Dt Jonson said, a man is never so innocently employed as when he is making money. This is, provided there is transparency. When that is missing, then impropriety arises soon after.
One of the prickly questions one might even ask is whether this ” full time commitment” is compatible with being the mother of young children? Brother Ivo accepts that it is, but wonders whether the pressures, distractions and crisis management inherent in the multi-tasking of such ladies is actually less of a distraction to them than a once a week Board Meeting of a family business?
The value of current and ongoing outside experiences brought by farmers, duty solicitors, GP’s and military reservists is surely much appreciated by the public when they hear their parliamentarians examining issues with real life understanding, rather than the reading of briefings from special advisors, time serving before their opportunity to step up another rung on the career ladder that began with the PPE degree at Oxford.
A Parliamentary salary is greater than many earn in the country. That is no reason to conclude that those of talent are grasping. exploitative, and “only in it for themselves”. The rules may need modification but ultimately does it not depend upon the character and caliber of those whom we ultimately have a responsibility to vet and hold to account?
It is transparency and accountability that was at the heart of Zac Goldsmith’s recall bill which was emasculated by the party hierarchies – the folk who are currently vying to occupy the moral high ground.
If the local electorate choose candidates in open primaries and can recall an MP via a by election triggered by a petition of 10% of the electorate, the behaviour of Messrs Straw and Rifkind are surely best judged in the court of their most local public opinion.
Brother Ivo finds the idea of artificially restricting outside activities deeply unattractive. Many of our best politicians have been polymaths, people of exceptional breadth organisational skills and energy.
A simple analogy to put before the electorate is that of professional football and the maximum wage.
Were we to return to the old days of the “maximum wage” and legislate that football players be paid only an MP’s salary with no International duties or outside sponsorships, can you imagine the uproar? Would not fans instantly see that it would result in an exit of talent, a “dumbing down” and a resulting mediocrity of journeyman without flair?
Brother Ivo does not want to be only represented by the very rich or those whose ambition is limited to holding onto a lifelong job on a respectable but not spectacular salary. He sees such MP’s as excessively prone to influence by the Whips Office: the model of those who have to hold onto their jobs through compliance, contrasted with those free from economic fear looks suspiciously like the old “gentlemen and players” model of yesteryear: one we should be slow to go back to.
Nothing illustrates the distain of the patrician class for the ordinary folk more than the entry in the members Register of Interests, which records a gift to Andy Burnham of a day at the Wimbledon tennis from Harriet Harman. It cost £2000.
It may be a pretty gesture between wealthy friends, but it surely sits ill for them to then rail against the ambition of more workaday MP’s who want and can suitably work for their families to have what the richest MP’s can so easily take for granted. Think of that day, when criticising the MP who put 400 hours at night and weekends as a duty solicitor on not much money for his firm
Brother Ivo wants representation by the businessman who knows whether regulation is ” just right” or holding back enterprise and job creation. He likes the awkward ex Union Official whose members may not be as monolithic – or PC – as the party hierarchy. He wants farmers to speak for the countryside. He wants the GP or that duty solicitor who can talk to the drug addict, and Police Sergeant alike at 3 in the morning and encounter what it is like trying to get a bed for the mentally ill under those circumstances, rather than hearing a civil servant’s regurgitation of statistics.
All this is applying the spirit of the Bishops’ letter to this current problem. They seem to be encouraging us to engage more, and put in another way, it reminds us that the real problem is not that MP’s are not paying enough attention to their job, but rather that it is the electorate which is sloppy, and under performing. WE should have been more outraged when the recall bill was defeated by party interests who wanted to keep their power over the people’s representatives and did not want the electorate to exercise the discipline over its MP’S
Surely Christians seeking to improve the body politic need to be saying -“get involved, vet your candidates before you elect them. Hold your MP to account for poor standards. If they let you down, don’t hold to tribal loyalty – ‘ throw the bums out!” -as our American friends say.
We soon reach one of Brother Ivo’s beloved paradoxes – or in this case, perhaps an irony.
In such encouragement to take responsibility for our democracy, the Bishops are aligning themselves intellectually with no one on the current political scene so much as Douglas Carswell of UKIP, who has written persuasively on the subject
Now, who would have thought that?