Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The furore over MPs' pay shows political campaigning at its worst

The prickly topic of MPs' pay is in the news again.  And when I say 'in the news', I also mean that self-righteous social media warriors are shouting through a dense smog of knee-jerk outrage and sharing poorly-researched, inaccurate 'infographics' which look like a nine-year-old created them in Microsoft Paint.

Leaving aside the sheer ignorance of many of these campaigners – I have lost count of how many Tweets I have seen blaming David Cameron for this, when in fact MPs' pay is set by an independent body precisely to stop it becoming such a contentious political issue (and how did that work out for you?!) – it occurs to me there are some very nasty political implications in this vilification of MPs.

One thing which comes up time and time again is the idea that MPs can, or should, 'reject' their pay rise.  According to IPSA (the independent body responsible for MPs' pay), actually, they can't – but more to the point, I fail to see why they should.  Taking a rise of £7000 would be 'out-of-touch', we are told.  (The most pointless, nonsensical, unmeaning insult in politics strikes again!)

But surely what would be really 'out-of-touch' would be not taking a £7000 pay rise!  After all, we're always being told that we want politicians who are 'ordinary' people – people who are just like us, with the same priorities and the same experiences as us.  How many ordinary people do you know who would turn down an extra £7000 a year?

No, what's really 'out-of-touch' is already being rich enough that you can afford to haughtily wave away the offer of an extra £7000 because you think doing so will make you look good.  Because that's all turning down the pay rise would be: a PR stunt.  MPs with enough independent wealth that £7000 is neither here nor there to them will make a big show of what good guys they are by ostentatiously not accepting their pay rise, or giving it away to charity – thus putting pressure on MPs from more modest backgrounds, who are not already vastly wealthy, to behave likewise or else be seen to be venal, greedy and self-serving.

I think MPs' pay needs to be enough to attract talented people to do what is actually a very tough and under appreciated job – and I mean talented people from all backgrounds.  But so, too, do attitudes towards this sensitive issue.

For bright, capable people who might be considering going into politics, especially people from lower income backgrounds, too low a salary might put them off and they will go into other areas instead.  So might the enormous personal costs of even becoming a candidate in the first place (not much is spoken about the fact that MPs have had to invest a lot of their own money and time in being selected as a candidate and winning their seat before they get the rewards of their higher-and-average salary).  But from my point-of-view, what would put people off going into politics the most is this furious, incensed obloquy from the public and the press.

I'm not sure I could handle the constant contradictions of having to be an 'ordinary' person to whom the voting public can 'relate', and yet also being expected to behave in ways no 'ordinary' person would, turning down a bit of extra cash when you are offered it.  But the fact is that however you conduct yourself in matters like these, people will scream that you are avaricious, lazy, and only looking out for yourself – even thought they often won't have any of the actual facts to hand.

Politicians need to be scrutinised, and they need to be held to account by each other, by the press, and ultimately by the public.  But they need to be scrutinised in an informed and rational way.  To my mind, one of the biggest barriers to entry is just how uninformed so many of the people who pretend to care about politics are; how quickly outright lies and deceit can spread when they paint the negative image of politicians people are clamouring to see; and how quick and eager people are to believe the very worst about politicians, even when what they're being told is patently not true.

It is a backwards-looking process (as I have already written about in regards to conspiracy theories), working back from a pre-determined conclusion borne of entrenched prejudices rather than a careful consideration of the evidence available.  Anti-government campaigners already know that they want to portray politicians in a bad light before they have written a word; they have their conclusion mapped out before they have the facts, so they either twist the facts, or cherry-pick convenient ones to suit the case they are trying to build – or they simply disregard facts entirely.

How many of the 'activists' who are angry about IPSA recommending a pay rise for MPs have actually bothered to look into how parliament works, and what an MP's job really entails?  Do they watch the BBC Parliament channel?  Do they read Hansard?  Do they meet their local MPs and get to know them before meting out aggressive and judgemental online content about what awful, nasty, evil people they are?  Do they know how IPSA came to the conclusions they did on the topic of MPs' pay, and the reasoning behind their recommendation that it should be increased?

Or do they – as I suspect – catch a whiff of a controversial issue which can be used to whip up an angry rabble and instantly reach for the Photoshop and the bold, all-caps font without bothering to look into the details any further and find out what it's actually all about?  My concern is: should we really be letting such people set the agenda in issues like these?

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