Rifkind and Straw scandal shows why we must pay MPs more

At this point, politicians should just assume every lobbyist they meet is an undercover reporter from the Daily Telegraph.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have been secretly recorded by journalists, allegedly offering to use their positions to advance the interests of a (non-existent) Chinese company.

In the video, Mr Straw is said to claim that he has “operated under the radar” in the past to lobby on behalf of a client firm while Sir Malcolm reportedly offered “useful access” to British ambassadors around the world.

The sting is a joint operation between the Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches and will be broadcast on Monday night.

The two men, both former foreign secretaries and elder statesmen of their parties, have had the respective whip withdrawn. The Conservatives are also expected to launch an investigation into the allegations against Sir Malcolm. Both MPs have reported themselves to the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

Both men have been foolish in allowing themselves to be ensnared like this and in failing to do some basic research before agreeing to meet with potential business clients. Sir Malcolm’s off-the-cuff remark that “nobody pays me a salary” will come as something of a shock to his constituents and his future as intelligence and security committee chair is now a matter for speculation.

The question of whether either man has broken any rules is a complex one. The parliamentary code of conduct says:

“It is inconsistent with the dignity of the House, with the duty of a Member to his constituents, and with the maintenance of the privilege of freedom of speech, for any Member of this House to enter into any contractual agreement with an outside body, controlling or limiting the Member’s complete independence and freedom of action in Parliament or stipulating that he shall act in any way as the representative of such outside body in regard to any matters to be transacted in Parliament…”

That sounds fairly definitive but it is more complicated than that. The committee on standards and privileges guidelines state that an MP is forbidden from parliamentary or ministerial advocacy which “seeks to confer benefit exclusively upon a body (or individual) outside Parliament, from which the Member has received, is receiving, or expects to receive a financial benefit, or upon any registrable client of such a body (or individual)”.

However, the guidelines also say that a parliamentarian “may speak freely on matters which relate to the affairs and interests of a body (or individual) from which he or she receives a financial benefit, provided the benefit is properly registered and declared”. That includes working as “a director, consultant, or adviser” and also allows MPs to be sponsored by a trade union (“or any other organisation”), hold other “registrable interests”, and enjoy hospitality.

It is difficult to determine, with only select portions of the recordings released so far, whether there is a reasonable case that the rules have been broken. Perhaps the full programme will make things clearer. Even then, it will be a matter for the standards commissioner to investigate and reach a finding.

Whatever the outcome of that process, the public will already have made up its mind. If the reaction on Twitter and Facebook is anything to go by, the general mood is somewhere between white-hot rage and they’re-all-at-it cynicism.

The public has every right to be angry at politicians appearing to benefit financially from their office. The expenses scandal and a string of lobbying stings similar to the one in question have provoked outrage with voters who justifiably expect politicians to be working on their behalf and not coining in pocket money as corporate shills.

The breakdown of trust between government and the governed that this has precipitated is corrosive to the democratic health of the nation. The impression that every politician is raking it in either by fiddling their expenses or taking brown envelopes from lobbyists, although grossly unfair to most politicians, is now firmly embedded in the popular consciousness. Today’s revelations will only entrench these prejudices further.

But they are prejudices and self-defeating ones. There is a corruption at the heart of our politics but it is not simply veteran politicos offering to have a word in the ear of this functionary or that in return for a bung. It is also our narrow and mean-spirited attitude towards public servants and the whole business of politics.

When the indignation settles in a few days or weeks, and some time before we move on to the next political row or public scandal or media frenzy, Britain will have to begin a grown-up conversation about what we expect from politicians and what we are willing to pay for it.

Before determining what MPs are worth, we need a clearer understanding of what they do. Every MP approaches the role in their own manner but the public seems to have a single, simple conception of the position: An MP is someone paid to sit in Parliament all day voting the way their constituents would like. We see the currency this notion holds in the popularity of tweeted pictures depicting near-empty Commons chambers. (“Only SIX MPs turned up to vote on a ten minute rule motion on gender balance in the recruitment of traffic wardens. THEY JUST DON’T GET IT, DO THEY?!?!”)

Edmund Burke famously told the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Burke was arguing against the proposition, which finds fashion from time to time, that MPs are mere delegates but his words have taken on a new relevance in this age of anti-politics. Politicians are more than the sum total of ayes and noes in the division lobbies of Westminster. They are better understood as senators, bringing character, insight, common sense, and a critical mind to the regulation of social affairs. Not every MP boasts all these qualities; some have none of them. But they make up the ideal that we should be striving for.

Edwin Morgan captured this ideal best in his poem on the opening of the Scottish Parliament building in 2004:

What do the people want of the place? They want it to be
filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its
A nest of fearties is what they do not want.
A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.
A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.

How do we secure for public life such thinking persons? We don’t do it by responding to these latest revelations the way, for example, Ed Miliband has. The Labour leader is never knowingly considered and barely had the Telegraph landed on the doormat this morning than he was releasing statements and calling for Something To Be Done. Because this is Mr Miliband, that something predictably involves a ban. He wants the rules changed so that MPs are proscribed from taking up paid consultancy roles and further demands that outside income be capped at 15% of a parliamentarian’s salary.

This will secure him some favourable headlines, the barometer of success for a leader of the opposition, but his proposals would bring little practical benefit and risk diminishing the quality of MPs. Once we make it even more difficult to have private sector and business interests while sitting in Parliament, we will see even fewer people from the private sector and business world putting themselves forward for selection. The businesswoman who builds up her empire and learns invaluable skills along the way will be barred from bringing those skills to bear on public policy – unless she is willing to forgo the very consultancies and directorships that would keep her in touch with the challenges and opportunities of business. If she does stand for Parliament, she will be positively brimming with experience and understanding of how business used to work.

It is a common complaint that not enough politicians have had jobs “in the real world” before entering politics. That is a reasonable criticism but it is illogical to bemoan this paucity of everyday experience then restrict the ability of the people who have it to get involved in political life. As well as discouraging incomers, this pose (Mr Miliband’s various statements seldom rise to the level of a position) could have good MPs heading for the exit. Ken Clarke is standing down in May and that’s fortunate since the £26,000 he has received in speaking fees in December and January alone would disqualify him under the Miliband rule. Would losing a rare voice of liberalism and legislative restraint be worth the satisfaction of knowing that the Member for Rushcliffe wasn’t earning a tidy sum for after-dinner talks? Tory MP Conor Burns earns £10,000 quarterly as a consultant to a construction company. We can sling him out the door; openly gay MPs are ten-a-penny. Think Parliament benefits from the life experience of someone like David Blunkett? Sorry, a directorship, paid columns, and speaking fees would rule him out. And let’s hope for Pete Wishart’s sake that there’s no Runrig revival, because an extra £7000 in music royalties would see the former rocker fall foul of Ed’s diktat.

If we want a Parliament bursting to the seams with former special advisers and party apparatchiks, we are going about it the right way.

The elephant in the room amidst all this is the question of remuneration. No one ever won a popularity contest by saying it but we simply do not pay MPs enough. It is true that they earn roughly three times the national average but is that the standard we wish to set for the people who levy our taxes, manage our public services, and decide whether or not we go to war? Serving as a Member of Parliament is not an “average” job, or at least it shouldn’t be, even if some occupants of the green benches are far from illustrious in their contributions to public life.

Yet the salary accorded to MPs is pitifully low, suppressed by governments and party leaders fearful of a public backlash. MPs, on £67,060, earn less than GPs (£92,900), top-of-the-scale headteachers (£107,210), and dentists (up to £81,480). Jack Straw, as MP for Blackburn, earns less than the chief executive of his local council (£136,740 – £149,412), as does Sir Malcolm in Kensington & Chelsea (where the head of the local authority makes £145,755).

(If MPs want to upscale their earnings without running an entire council, they could apply to be head of IT at Aberdeen City Council (£78,717) or try their hand at being leisure director at Dundee City Council (£90,081).)

Do we really value our parliamentarians less than the IT guy at a local council?

Many people will have little sympathy for this argument. Isn’t politics supposed to be about public service, they will snort. It is a peculiar – and perhaps peculiarly British – attitude to public service that is is something to be penalised. Fine, go do good on behalf of others but you’d better be willing to pay the price. No one demands that teachers or nurses or firefighters take a vow of poverty and live on the minimum wage. Yet these are, after all, vocational occupations.

That is because those public servants are Good and politicians are Bad. Heaping scorn and scepticism on our leaders is one of our national pastimes – and probably why odd little men with funny salutes never caught on here – but we shouldn’t let it blind us to unpopular truths. The need to pay good salaries to attract good politicians is one of those truths. If we ignore or reject it, we will get the Parliament we deserve: older, maler, paler, and staler. Anyone who laments the over-representation of the privately educated and well-to-do in the Commons should understand that meagre salaries are a barrier to remedying this social ailment. And if we must ban consulting and severely restrict outside income, a significant salary hike is all the more necessary.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw may be having one of the more unpleasant days of their long careers but they have done us all a great service. Of course, politicians shouldn’t be for hire by corporate interests but when you take talented people, pay them terribly, and make it difficult for them to make outside income, it shouldn’t be surprising that it happens. The unseemly, grubby sight of former Cabinet secretaries furtively hocking their wares forces us to confront our prejudices about politicians and decide once and for all what exactly we expect of them.

Originally published on STV News. Image of Jack Straw © Chatham House by Creative Commons 2.0; image of Malcolm Rifkind © Foreign and Commonwealth Office by Creative Commons 2.0.

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