This morning’s headlines are all about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind falling for a Channel 4/ Telegraph sting to where they were filmed apparently offering their services to a private company for cash. Both men have ‘strenuously denied’* any naughtiness, but have also referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards authority. I have thoughts on this issue. They are threefold, and so, because I haven’t done one for a while, I shall share them with you through the medium of a numbered list.
1. The oft repeated idea that politicians need to tackle the perception that they are out of touch with voters completely misses the point.
Malcolm Rifkind, apparently, charges £5-8000 for half a days work. £5-8,000. The average (mean) salary in the UK is somewhere around about £27,000 pa. If we take the lower end of Rifkind’s half-day rate, that’s about 2.5 months income for an average earner. Or to put it another way, the average annual salary equates to less than 3 days work for a senior MP offering their services to a private business. A single jobseekers’ allowance claimant in this country is entitled to £72.40 per week. That’s how much the government has decreed an individual needs to live on after their rent has been paid. Someone claiming jobseekers’ allowance would take roughly a year and four months to get to an income of £5,000.
Rifkind talks about not being paid a salary. He has pointed out that he was referring to a salary from private business, over and above his MP’s salary, but it’s hard to get away from the impression that his £67,000 income from being an MP is insufficiently substantial to stick in his mind.
This isn’t a situation that creates a perception that MPs are out of touch with the rest of the population. It’s a situation that highlights the reality of just how out of touch they are.
2. If the best thing you can say about your behaviour is that it’s not actually illegal, that’s too low a bar
Both Straw and Rifkind have been at pains to emphasise that they don’t think they’ve broken and codes of conduct, and believe that their behaviour is well within the letter of the law. Well, so what? We don’t live in a world where there’s ‘illegal behaviour’ and ‘good behaviour’ and nothing in between. It’s the same situation as when UKIP get tied in knots explaining how some specific comment wasn’t racist, as if ‘racist’ and ‘fine’ are the only available categories of activity, and so long as they’re not racist they must be a’ok.
It’s entirely possible for behaviour to be entirely legal, and still abhorrently unethical, or a bit dodgy, or slightly disappointing. ‘Not illegal’ isn’t the same as ‘right’ or ‘good.’ There’s a whole range of behaviour that isn’t illegal but also fails to add to the some total of joy and kindness in the world. More than that, there’s a whole range of stuff that isn’t illegal, but still makes the world a little bit sadder, greyer and more disappointing. Which brings me to my final point…
3. Voters aren’t going to respect the office of MP, if MPs don’t respect it themselves
Two former ministers of state, prostrating themselves in front of an overseas agency for a quick buck. Really? Show some self-respect gentlemen. Neither of you, I’m guessing, is short of cash. You’re members of what should be considered one of the most august institutions on the planet. You’ve both been members of government, and you’re both still serving MPs in a period when the reputation of MPs has been tarnished by the expenses scandal, and repeated ‘cash for influence/access/questions’ type hoo-hahs. This is a moment in time when you need to be better than this. This is a moment for saying actually we ARE all in this together, and my MPs salary is more than sufficient to compensate me for spending all my working time on constituency and parliamentary business.
I’m not saying MPs should never have outside interests. I’m very much in favour of MPs coming to Parliament after spending some of their working lives in a real non-Westminster-bubble job, but if you’re an MP who wants to broaden their world view while serving in Parliament, can I politely suggest voluntary work? It’s good for the community. It’s good for the soul, and it won’t cause your voters to think you’re obviously just on the take.
And breathe… So there’s the rant for the day. A day earlier than usual I note, but the news world will have moved on by tomorrow, so I figured why wait?
*Why are politician’s denials always strenuous? Are denials never issued wearily, angrily, or cheerfully, or are journalists subject to strict limits on adverb use?
And if you want to read me in more jocular, more fictional, and less shouty mood, my first novel, Sweet Nothing will be out in paperback from August, and is available to order right now.