I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too much here, if I suggest that the proposal by Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) to raise MPs’ salaries by £10,000 a year won’t be the most popular decision ever taken by parliament.
In fact, dammit, I’m going to come right out and say it: this decision is likely to be greeted with outrage, derision, contempt and disgust, headshaking hilarity and downright animosity. No wonder even the party leaders are opposed to it, so much so that they have told their MPs not to accept it – a gesture that is less noble than it appears, considering that two of them, and most of the cabinet are millionaires.
Possibly aware of this potential for controversy, Ipsa is at pains to point out that this pay rise won’t cost the treasury any extra money, and will be offset by cuts in MPs’ perks and severance payments. Somehow I doubt that too many people will be impressed by that.
Because juggle the figures how you will, the fact is that the political class is effectively awarding itself a massive 12 percent pay rise at a time when the Iron Chancellor has just pegged public sector pay rises at 1 percent and the average household income has fallen by four per cent – equivalent to £1,200 in real terms – since the 2007-08 crisis, and when food and energy bills are rising and public services are being savagely cut.
Millions of people are struggling to pay bills, rents and mortgages. Tens of thousands are only able to feed themselves and their families by going to food kitchens, and the government is looking to make another 10 percent reduction in council budgets, and the so-called opposition has lamely agreed to accept its spending cuts.
Yet even in these circumstances, with large swathes of the population groaning under the impact of a fake austerity program, imposed by politicians who were either directly complicit in the financial crisis or too cowardly to hold those responsible to account, MPs want to upgrade their salaries to £75,000 a year.
This extraordinarily crass decision cannot be attributed to the collective tin ear of ‘out of touch’ politicians living apart from the population in the Westminster bubble. On one hand, the political class clearly believes that it can get away with anything, and the record of the last few years suggests that they are probably right. And many backbenchers think that they are underpaid and deserve a pay rise.
This belief is not likely to get much traction outside Westminster. Perhaps the more hard-working backbenchers are fed up watching ex-ministers pick up directorships on companies whose agenda they have helped promote, like Blunkett, Milburn, Reid and so many others.
Perhaps they are frustrated at having to spend so much time promoting the interests of corporations and the wealthy and not getting any commensurate reward, or feel envious at the unpleasant sight of greedy little jerks like Tim Yeo on the make.
Do MPs work long hours? No doubt. But so do many of the workers who have had their pay frozen. Is being an MP a demanding and stressful job? Probably – for some MPs at least, but no more so than the work done by nurses and teachers, or the growing numbers of private and public sector workers on zero hours contracts. Being unemployed is also pretty stressful, and even more so after the swathe of vindictive measures imposed by the Coalition.
What these MPs don’t seem to realize – or don’t seem to care about – is that their sense of entitlement is likely to invite mockery, not only towards them, but towards the institution of parliament itself, and will no doubt deepen the general disenchantment with politicians of all persuasions that has become such a feature of democratic politics in our ‘age of austerity.’
In these circumstances, it’s worth recalling the example of José Mujica, ex-Tupamaro guerrillero president of Uruguay, who took a ninety percent pay cut in his presidential salary, most of which he donates to charity. In a profile earlier this year, the New York Times described the ‘austere’ lifestyle of a president whose net worth on coming to office was $1, 200, yet who has spurned the trappings of office:
He lives in a run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts with no servants at all. His security detail: two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road. In a deliberate statement to this cattle-exporting nation of 3.3 million people, Mr. Mujica, 77, shunned the opulent Suárez y Reyes presidential mansion, with its staff of 42, remaining instead in the home where he and his wife have lived for years, on a plot of land where they grow chrysanthemums for sale in local markets.
According to the NYT, Mujica believes that ‘ For democracy to function properly… elected leaders should be taken down a notch’ and that the presidency should accordingly be ‘less venerated – a philosophy that he attributes to the Roman court-philosopher Seneca’s assertion that ‘It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.’
Too right. And if MPs accept this pay rise, they will reveal themselves to be even poorer than many of them already seem to believe.