Why we should pay politicians more
Welcome to Normielisation, a semi-regular newsletter looking at British politics, culture and society
On Friday, much of “the discourse” was taken up by this piece in The Times, which focuses on the travails of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street. Online discussion mostly centred around this section:
On the personal front, they say, Mr Johnson, 56, is worried and complaining about money. He is still supporting, to different degrees, four out of his six children, has been through an expensive divorce and had his income drop by more than half as a result of fulfilling his lifetime ambition.
As a backbench MP, with his Daily Telegraph column netting him £275,000 and lucrative speaking engagements, he was earning well in excess of £350,000 a year. His prime ministerial salary of about £150,000 might seem perfectly sufficient — but that is not what he actually receives. His use of the flat that he shares with his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, above Number 11 is taxed as a benefit in kind. Any food sent up from the Downing Street kitchen has to be paid for and if they want to have friends to stay at Chequers — Covid restrictions permitting — they receive a bill from the government.
Stop rolling your eyes and set aside your feelings about this particular Prime Minister for a minute. That the political leader of this country is paid just ~£150,000- an £81,932 salary for being an MP and the rest for being leader of the country- is fucked beyond belief.
To put the PM’s pay into context, 667 people at local authorities across Britain earn more than him.
This isn’t an argument against their pay levels (I’m sure they’re very good at their jobs), but that remuneration for the office of Prime Minister should at least attempt to reflect the prestige and importance of the job.
It’s not always been like this. The salary for the role of Prime Minister was £10,000 when it was first set in the Ministers of the Crown Act 1937- just under £690,000 in today’s money. Admittedly pay for the role has ebbed and flowed over time, but as late as 2010 pay was £193,885 (~£250,000 in today’s money). There’s clear historical precedent for paying the PM more.
Increasing the pay of the Prime Minister would also serve to materially decrease the number of daft media stories we see complaining that “X public servant is paid more than the PM!”. At best these stories are a distraction, at worst they actively hinder the quality of people the public sector can employ.
Of course, I’m not daft enough to argue that the role of Prime Minister is subject to the normal rules of the labour market. The job of PM could pay nothing and would still be the subject of intense interest and jockeying from sitting MPs, the pool of candidates from which we get our Prime Ministers. Instead the problem lays with the quality of that pool- we need to significantly increase MP pay to get a better MPs.
That there is a quality problem with many of our MPs is beyond doubt. In 2012 the Royal Statistical Society tested the mathematical ability of all MPs by asking them the probability of getting two heads if a fair coin is flipped twice. Terrifyingly, 60% got this simple probability question wrong. We’ve had three elections since this experiment was conducted, and I’d put money on this result being worse if it was rerun in 2020. Our politicians are getting thicker.
I know plenty of bright people from across the political spectrum who would be fantastic MPs, but would never countenance becoming one. As documented in Isabel Hardman’s book “Why We Get the Wrong Politicians”, the job of an MP has got materially worse over the last twenty years: demand from constituents is higher, not just through the increase in worthy casework, but also the endless deluge of smart-arsey “policy” complaints; it increasingly absorbs every hour of your life; and it’s relatively low status compared to equivalent professions.
Add to that the obvious job insecurity; that it’s possible to be elected and, through no fault of your own, have no chance of a sniff of power (imagine being a Labour MP first elected in 2010, or a tory elected in 1997); and the fact that some of the perks of the job, such as the “resettlement grant”, the pension and the permissive expenses system, have disappeared in recent years, then it becomes clear why many talented people shy away from spending the most profitable years of their life in Parliament. The solution is to make the job more attractive to our most talented people by paying more.
That politics doesn’t pay isn’t just a problem at a national level. The Mayor of Tees Valley, a role which sees heading up a Combined Authority, representing almost 700,000 people and responsible for multi-million pound investment fund, is paid an embarrassing £35,700.
Similarly, most of our 20,000 local councillors are paid embarrassingly small “allowances”. There are plenty of decent, diligent and smart councillors, but those of you who have had any involvement in politics will know there are many who, well, aren’t…
This can only be fixed by making the role attractive to talented newcomers, avoiding the incongruous position where low quality elected representatives are paid a pittance to set the policies that are followed by council officers on 6 figure salaries. It’s no surprise that in the last LGA census 43% of councillors were aged over 65- they’re the only group that can afford to do it.
I’m aware of the irony of using the first issue of a newsletter called “normielisation” to argue for something as drastically unpopular as increasing politicians pay, but frankly you get what you pay for. Being a politician will always have costs for the individual over other careers, but, if we want to attract the best people, the financial incentives shouldn’t be as poor as they are now.
Just look at our stupid, turgid response to the Coronavirus crisis- wouldn’t it be nice if we paid for better politicians?
What I’ve been reading recently
Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube- Andrew Martin: Despite living in zone 2 of London, I’ve not been on the tube since March. Perhaps bizarrely, I miss it. In a sick pique of subterranean nostalgia, I pulled this off my bookshelf to read. It’s a good humoured and fairly comprehensive history of the world’s oldest underground rail network. I was particularly struck by how hodgepodge and unplanned the evolution of the system we now know and tolerate has been. Recommended if only for this discussion on whether a gentleman can get electrocuted by weeing on a live rail.
Science Fictions- Stuart Ritchie: An incredibly useful, “down to earth and surprisingly funny” primer on what has gone wrong with science in recent years, and how it can be fixed. I particularly recommend the section on “how to read a scientific paper”, which I expect to return back to many times over the years.
Full Disclosure: I’m a pal of Stuart’s and read an early draft of some of this to help him cut the number of Coldplay references and ensure a “literate moron” could understand it. Obviously this means I take full credit for any funny jokes within.
Britain’s Prisons aren’t working- Sam Ashworth-Hayes: this fantastic Spectator piece, which solves a philosophical tension I’ve struggled with for some time: how to reconcile my reactionary view that our current approach to rehabilitation fundamentally doesn’t work, with my soft wet lib-ish view that Prison is not a very nice place to be. Seems the answer is longer sentences for violent criminals, but spending more to make prison a more dignified place!