Such is the extent of the anti-politics mood that Members of Parliament face criticism however they conduct their working arrangements.
If they are full-time MPs then they are the “political class”: those “professional politicians” operating in a bubble out of touch with the real world. Some would bravely seek to justify the arrangement. A couple of years ago one cabinet minister challenged a colleague who was lamenting that many of them had never had “a proper job”:
“Hang on, we are all professional politicians, we are not going down that road, we are the Guild of Professional Politicians and we will be the best professional politicians that there can be.”
That plucky defender of professional politicians was, of course, George Osborne. But he was making a provocative case – most would not regard the trend as welcome.
On the other hand, should politicians take on additional work outside of politics they are denounced for greed, “moonlighting” and “neglecting their constituents”. Thus we have the fury over Osborne, who seems to have become more broadminded about professional demarcations, resolving to edit the Evening Standard in the mornings and turn up in the House of Commons in the afternoons.
The outcry has prompted demands for the rules to be tightened.
Instead we should be going in the opposite direction. In 1909 there was a warning from Sir William Bull, the Conservative MP for Hammersmith, against a proposal to pay MPs. Sir William predicted the next thing would be that local councillors would be paid and there was a danger of “a very distinct class of professional politicians.”
As Charles Moore says in the Daily Telegraph this morning:
“The real misunderstanding is to think of being an MP as a job. It is better described as a representative role. Being a minister is a job, of course. You run, or help run, a government department. For as long as you do so, any other work would be a conflict of interest. But a backbench MP is quite different.
“His task is to represent his constituents, make laws and hold the government to account. It is not an executive function. With about 550 others doing the same thing, it should not require full-time labour. I feel that any MP who cannot secure non-political work as well as his parliamentary duties will be a bad representative of the rest of us.”
It could be countered that to “represent” constituents is time-consuming if done effectively. There is all the case work – often from constituents in a desperate state attempting to cope with the “system” and its manifold bureaucratic perversities. MPs have staff to help with this work. But they are ultimately responsible for it. They are also expected to be accessible – not just by holding surgeries but also across an array of events in their constituencies. Then there is the task of upholding the broader constituency interests – for instance working with business and local government in seeking to ensure the local economy thrives.
But surely each MP’s effectiveness should be measured by their output – not by the hours they put in. Still less should there be envy over how much money they earn for their non Parliamentary work. The labour theory of value should not apply.
Let us consider the case of Geoffrey Cox, the Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon who earned £578,000 last year for his work as a barrister.
Do his constituents suffer as a result? His surgeries in Torrington and Tavistock look frequent enough. Surgeries are a bit old fashioned now – far more case work comes via email – but they give an indication that he is active. His lobbying for the Appledore Shipyard seems effective. Last week he reported arranging a meeting with the Health Secretary about the loss of beds at Holsworthy Hospital. Of course if the good people of Torridge and West Devon resolve that he is failing to champion their interests effectively they have the remedy open to them of choosing somebody else. I really don’t see why some sanctimonious Quangocrat bore should interfere in the process.
Naturally the same point applies Osborne. He has the additional hurdle of constituency boundary changes – with the opportunity for local Conservatives to deselect him should they decide he has become negligent. I suspect they shall find nothing of the sort.
Similarly if Osborne proves a dud editor of the Evening Standard then Evgeny Lebedev can get rid of him. (Paul Goodman has predicted that Osborne, with the necessary sense of mischief, will actually do rather well.) If Lebedev is happy with Osborne’s efforts – and the footballers of Alderley Edge, shopkeepers of Knutsford, and parents of Wilmslow are similarly content – then why should the rest of us fret?
In 1995 Lord Nolan’s Committee on Standards in Public Life declared:
“A Parliament composed entirely of full-time professional politicians would not serve the best interests of democracy. The House needs if possible to contain people with a wide range of current experience which can contribute to its expertise. The onward march of the professional politician may be an irresistible feature of modern life, but we believe that nothing should be done by way of institutional arrangements which would hasten it.”
That conclusion remains valid.