There isn't enough money in British politics
If Sky News taught us anything with their dodgy dashboard, it's this.
The Sky News and Tortoise organisations have this week been busily promoting their ‘Westminster Accounts’ dashboard. A snazzy tool that boldly tells us MPs have received a whopping £17.1 million on top of their salaries since 2019.
Gasp! Millions! Is the end of representative democracy nigh? Are our MPs laughing all the way to the bank, rolling with the global elite, skipping constituency duties to sail their private yachts to their even more private islands? Well, let’s break this number down.
£17.1 million is the amount of dosh Sky says MPs have accrued since December 2019, and that’s more than three years ago. It equates to roughly £5.7 million per year. Divided by 650 MPs, thats £8,769. Just about enough to buy a mid range second hand car.
Except, it isn’t even that. Because this number doesn’t represent cash that MPs have trousered. In fact much hasn’t even come close to a single MP’s bank account. Not that reporting around the dashboard has often sought to highlight this rather important fact.
A large proportion of Mansfield MP Ben Bradley’s ‘cash’ on Sky’s charge sheet, for example, consists of free tickets to local football matches. The way it presented is inviting us to believe these are sinister donations - money going straight to his pocket, rather than simply the kind of community engagement that you would expect from any good local MP.
Meanwhile Maria Caulfield has registered £8,890 from a nefarious organisation called Royal Marsden Hospital. What perverse influence might this opaque establishment be having over our politics? Caulfield, a registered nurse, works part-time on its wards.
Elsewhere, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak register as are four of the highest scoring MPs, registering hundreds of thousands of pounds each. They appear to be absolutely minted:
Starmer has declared £799,900.
Long-Bailey has declared £406,800.
Truss has declared £538,600.
Sunak has declared £546,000.
The implication here of course is that these MPs have pocketed this money in outside earnings. In reality, however, each ran substantial party leadership campaigns during this Parliament. Far from comparable to outside earnings.
Or take Wes Streeting, for example. The dashboard shows hundreds of thousands of pounds donated by interest groups and high net worth individuals since 2019. Crucially, however, it doesn’t begin to say where this money went. The initiated can go over to Parliament.UK which reveals Mr. Streeting lists tens of thousands of pounds of these recent donations are specifically to pay for extra staff members in his office. Not that the ‘Westminster Accounts’ dashboard bothers to report this.
Again and again, this dodgy indiscriminate dashboard does not sufficiently differentiate between gifts, donations, and outside earnings. Nor does it begin to explain where any money actually went. Did the money go to buying leaflets, or a fancy car? Extra staffing, or a duck house? The dashboard does not differentiate.
In this sense the presentation is akin to the odious ‘MPs Expenses Dot Info’ website - which improperly implies MPs trouser hundreds of thousands of pounds in expenses. In reality this website simply lumps the costs of running an office, including the salaries of those who work within it, in with all other expenses. It is crude, misleading, and often misused my morons on Twitter, who go after politicians for claiming six figures when in reality all the member has done is employ a handful of staff.
Yet aside from the less than clear differentiation of donations and earnings, perhaps the biggest takeaway from this dashboard is just how little even our most senior politicians have been able to accrue. Theresa May for example, the former Prime Minister of the 5th largest economy in the world, has earned just £2.8 million in the last three-and-a-bit years.
To me and you that may seem like a huge amount of money. But on the other hand, it is the largest amount earned by any MP, and it comes in at less than a million a year. Compare that to those at the top of their game in law, finance, or film. Compare that to the heads of big businesses. Does the former head of one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council not count for as much?
Theresa May earning less than a million a year is not a scandal of exuberance, despite the many headlines that have spun from this. The only scandal here that I can see is that a former Prime Minister of one of the wealthiest and most significant countries in the world is earning less than a million quid a year. What does that say about Britain? That the former leader of this country is valued to the tune of four Texas car wash managers.
Again, almost a million quid a year is certainly not to be sniffed at. I would love to earn that kind of cash. Maybe then I might, just might, be able to afford a house. But to suggest that the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should be earning less? That’s a mindset of profound decline. If some big firm wants to hear her speak, let them pay for it, there’s no shame in that. After all, only a very few people on this earth have written doomsday instructions to nuclear fleets, and she is one of them.
Frankly it is surprising that not a single MP earns more than a million a year.
Why do I say that? Surely “being an MP is a full time job.” Well, yes. Yet that often-cited phrase in reality hinges on a huge number of definitions. Let’s dive in.
The role of being an MP is to represent constituents. That’s it. Yet virtually no MP can agree what representing constituents actually means, or how much time it is supposed to take up.
You only need to look at the Cabinet (or the Shadow Cabinet). Steve Barclay and Wes Streeting spend more time on their healthcare briefs than they personally do on constituent casework for example. James Cleverly and David Lammy spend more time engaged in foreign affairs than local issues. That’s not to say their constituents go uncared for, both have excellent offices to ensure constituents are well served, and both do devote lots of time to constituency matters. They just don’t devote as much time to constituency matters as they do to international ones.
And so on it goes, whether it’s junior ministers, whips, Parliamentary Under Secretaries of State, Personal Private Secretaries, or the shadow versions of all of the above, the fact of the matter is MPs have time to do these jobs on top of their roles as backbenchers.
You only need to look at how ex-ministers suddenly have so much free time, often to write memoirs or take up causes.
Many backbench MPs will pick issues to campaign upon often not immediately related to constituency issues - whether its Matt Hancock and dyslexia awareness, Liam Fox and provision for those with Down's syndrome, or Iain Duncan Smith and combatting Chinese authoritarianism. These are voluntary and noble causes that can take up huge amounts of time.
And how are these campaigns particularly different to the outside work of MPs like Dr James Davies, who earned £35,220 from part time work as a GP. Or Maria Caulfield who earned £8,890 from her part time work as a nurse.
Let’s not forget £87,590 David Lammy has earned from hosting a radio show, or £30,340 Chris Bryant has earned from publishing his (actually very readable) new book.
Clearly these are exploits that enhance the role of an MP, while also indicating that being an MP isn’t a traditional ‘full time job’ in the sense that most people think of one. MPs don’t clock on at 9 and clock off at 5. Their job is to represent their constituents in the best way they can. Now, for some that includes writing newspaper columns or hosting radio shows. For others that involves working in the NHS, or continuing legal work.
You can see how much extra time MPs have by looking at how many serve on committees. None have to, but almost every backbencher serves on at least one. The decision to specialise in education policy, transport policy, or agricultural policy isn’t something MPs have to do to be doing their jobs, but something they choose to do that enhances their jobs - and frankly fills their time.
MPs’ jobs are weird. MPs are weird. And analysing their roles through the lens of ‘normal jobs’ is always going to lead to bad conclusions. MPs do have time to do work beyond the core functions of pretending to be a local councillor inspecting potholes, forwarding constituent concerns to the relevant authorities, and occasionally voting or asking a question in the Chamber.
The crucial element of our democracy is that it is constituents who can judge whether or not the things MPs do with their time have been worthwhile. Whether it’s writing, whipping, working, campaigning on wider issues, taking on a ministerial brief, a trade envoy role, or a Committee Chairmanship.
It is clearly legitimate for MPs to earn money for outside work. Even the Labour Party - which has proposed a ban on such MP work - agrees. Starmer’s proposed ban has multiple exemptions whether that be writing books, newspaper columns, or broadcasting.
Again, the role of an MP is to represent their constituents in the best way they can. That takes many forms. Sometimes that means paid for Committee trips to other countries to learn best practice. Sometimes that means accepting tickets to local football games. Sometimes that means taking donations to print literature highlighting work or sending out local surveys. Sometimes that means writing or broadcasting. And evidently receiving money for some of that work is far from untoward. It is often part of the job.
What is bizarre is that all of these kinds of earnings or donations in kind have been jumbled together. Whether they be personal earnings from after dinner speeches or political donations that fund staff members or leaflet printing. The ‘Westminster Accounts’ dashboard is a mess.
Far from the implication of some sort of Expenses Scandal 2.0 of Watergate proportions, ultimately all that the dashboard serves to show is in reality how little money there is in UK politics. Certainly compared to the US, where one special election candidate can enjoy over $10m of spending thrown their way to during one campaign to win one seat.
If anything just £8,769 per MP on donations, outside earnings, and free event tickets is scandalously low.
If I were the kind of person to believe most MPs could be bought then what a cheap investment it would be for some of the country’s biggest companies, or highest net worth individuals. If this were genuinely the case, then surely any moderately large business could basically buy the government. It would be a remarkably affordable endeavour. Which leads me to think either simply no one has thought to (unlikely), or the safeguards that currently exist are more than adequate (more likely).
Ultimately we should not indulge in conspiracy level thinking that Big Business can buy the government. It is wrong for people to suggest there was a coordinated market conspiracy that brought down Liz Truss. And all the business might of the CBI couldn’t stop Brexit. Political funding is less of an issue than excitable headlines on both right and left have tried to claim.
We should want to think more highly of MPs. Politicians should be able to attract more cash in donations to properly run campaigns with greater professionalism than having to rely upon a shaky handycam coupled with Windows Movie Maker.
The system as it is currently constructed is of course imperfect. There is much to be written on how MPs should have larger better funded offices with more staff to properly deliver legislative scrutiny, research, and serve their constituents in a better way than one individual ever could.
Yet ultimately when all is said and done the real scandal to take away from these ‘Westminster Accounts’ is that these individuals supposedly at the top of their game in politics can only on average attract a measly four figure sum through speeches, columns, books, legal work, or indeed total donations to their own political campaigns. When all is said and done I find myself coming to the perhaps surprising conclusion that there simply isn’t enough money in British politics.