Banning second jobs for MPs is vital to protect our democracy – The Guardian
Lucrative extra roles for politicians encourage the Tory establishment to serve the interests of big business – not the public
Last modified on Thu 11 Nov 2021 17.20 GMT
The phrase used to describe the scandal enveloping parliament – “MPs’ second jobs” – is indicative of the problem. Being an MP is not a “job”, it is a public service. In exchange for the privilege of representing your community and helping to determine the future direction of your country, you are handed a publicly funded salary of nearly £82,000, placing you in the top 5% of earners, pulling in around three times the average wage. That is beyond anything most Britons will ever hope to earn, and indeed is a sum of money the vast majority of us think qualifies you as rich.
It is, of course, important that MPs are paid for their service: until 1911 they were not, and the then new Labour party was at the forefront of demanding an allowance so working-class candidates could afford to be parliamentarians. In 2021, there can be few supermarket shelf-stackers or cleaners who are deterred from a life in politics by an excessively low pay packet.
The real driver of the crises which have periodically enveloped Westminster – from the expenses scandal to the current outrage – is that MPs see themselves as upper-middle-class professionals. They look at the salaries of those they deem to have comparable status – like CEOs, whose median wage has gone from 20 times that of the average UK worker in the early 1980s to 120 times, or Barclays, which pays over £1m to 450 of its staff – and they feel hard done by. Tory MPs in particular socialise in such circles: more hail from business and commercial backgrounds than any other occupation, for example, while the party has received £11m from the financial sector since the 2019 general election. When Tory MPs rub shoulders with hedge fund managers and financiers at elite fundraisers, they meet what they regard as their elite counterparts. But while City slickers can send all of their brood to the most expensive public schools without it denting their finances, such a prospect is an extravagance on a parliamentary salary, depending on the occupation of one’s spouse.
It was those same Tory MPs who unleashed the market forces of the 1980s that so enriched the upper echelons of society: why shouldn’t they benefit from the proceeds, too? After all, surging levels of inequality were rationalised by a new prevailing dogma: that those at the top deserved to be there, because they were the go-getters, the risk-takers, the most able and hardest-working of the crop. That new mantra could be summed up by the slogan of L’Oréal: “Because I’m worth it.” And MPs who saw themselves as the most important profession of all certainly believed they were worth it. No wonder, then, that they believed they were entitled – as a bare minimum – to top up their salary with expenses, until SW1 was enveloped in the wide-ranging scandal of 2009.
It is this same mentality that leads more than a quarter of Tory MPs to take up jobs in sectors ranging from gambling to private healthcare. That it corrupts democracy in one way is obvious, as the Owen Paterson scandal highlights. Private firms know that MPs give them a vital “in”: they can influence legislation, ask high-profile questions which put pressure on government to deliver desired results, and they often have close relationships with ministers and Downing Street’s inner circles. If the MP has served in government, they also understand how to navigate the heavy machinery of the state. The most high-profile example of this, of course, was David Cameron’s tawdry lobbying for Greensill, but this is the final destination of many senior ministers and civil servants alike. That enables certain private interests to wield disproportionate and unaccountable power.
But our democracy is also corroded in a manner that is more subtle – though no less egregious – than flagrant corruption. The interests of MPs become inextricably aligned to those of corporations, multinationals and the well-to-do, rather than those of their constituents. In advance of George Osborne slashing the top rate of tax, rich City donors told the Financial Times that such a move was driven by their closeness to the party. If you are a party kept afloat by financiers and hedge funds, your parliamentary party is stuffed full of MPs with jobs on the side, and you regard your political career as a lucrative springboard into high-end private sector jobs, why wouldn’t you feel an instinctive sympathy for policies that enrich the few who are already thriving?
Indeed, it is this revolving door that helps cement a bond of solidarity between elected politicians and business elites. While this is primarily a Conservative scandal – only three Labour MPs have registered second jobs – it is not exclusively so. Take Geoff Hoon, the former Labour defence secretary, who approved the awarding of a £1bn contract to AgustaWestland – a leading supplier of the Saudi dictatorship – and then ended as their managing director for international business. All above board of course: but if you were a minister with one eye on your prospects, how does that influence your decisions, consciously or otherwise?
The only solution is to restate that being an MP is a public service and a duty, not a top-end profession requiring appropriate remuneration. But we need to do more than just say it: putting an end to corruption requires urgent reform. That means banning second jobs – with the exceptions of actual public services, such as healthcare or teaching – and heavily constraining the revolving door and the lobbying activities of former MPs. Those who claim this would limit MPs with “real-world experience” are telling on themselves: it’s not gilded private consultancies that inject reality into the Westminster bubble, but the small minority of parliamentarians who know what it’s like to languish on a social housing waiting list, to have your benefits slashed while raising kids, or to lie awake fretting over unopened energy bills.
Our greatest national institution – the National Health Service – was not the brainchild of a heavily remunerated City speculator, but of the poorly educated ex-miner Nye Bevan, who understood the suffering of working-class citizens condemned to the cruelty of a society without a welfare state. If we can make politics the public service it always should have been, there will be losers, sure – MPs’ sense of entitlement and the power of big business – but some of our diminished democracy will finally be recovered.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist