I was chatting with a state senator in Santa Fe, USA at the weekend. Nice guy. I explained that I was heavily involved in politics in the UK, so he insisted on giving me a guided tour of the New Mexico congress building where he is based. Nice place.
At the end of the tour, seeing how impressed I was with the marble halls and sumptuous surroundings, he asked me how much I thought he was actually paid in his exalted position. Difficult one; bit like guessing a lady’s age - one wants to sound realistic, but also complimentary. Anyway, knowing full well a West Sussex county councillor receives just over £11,000 a year, I thought I’d spin it by four and multiply that by about 1.5 to give dollars and so I said $66,000.
Cheap at half the price
Wrong. He receives nothing. OK not quite, a bit of petrol – sorry, gasoline - and some overnight costs when he travels in to participate in state government matters. In other words, he does it all for the love of the job, the love of the people. How impressive is that?
What many folks in Britain may not realise is that our own politicians were in a similar position once upon a time. As far as West Sussex County Council was concerned, members didn’t receive any set allowance (or wage) until the turn of the 21st century. More intriguing is that MPs at Westminster were also unpaid up until 1911. So, does that sound like the good old days, when no snouts were seen in unseemly troughs – or is it more complex than that?
Well, what you see here is the classic trade-off between ideology and pragmatism. On the one hand the purism of doing the job for the love of it. But that’s OK for folks with plenty of money in the bank – or whose partner is a rich entrepreneur maybe. They can afford that level of altruism. If you can’t, then to participate at even County Council level would mean a major drop in earning capacity, which could mean that the cat, the hamster or the children don’t get fed. That was the thinking behind the modern allowances for councillors – and over a century ago, for MPs. The logic is that all citizens should be in a position to run for office, not just the well-heeled. Sound fair?
Fair’s fair – but how fair?
The question remains, though, are politicians well paid, are they creaming it in? Let’s start from the ground upwards. Parish councillors receive around £150 a year, while District and Borough councillors typically get between £3,500 and £5,000. What I can say from personal experience, though, is that county councillors are lucky if they are “earning” more than the minimum wage if one counts up the hours involved in the job. My ‘phone often rings after 9pm and my personal service to Lancing residents is 24/7 if that’s what they require.
Moving up the scale a bit; MP’s earnings are rising to £74,000 per annum or in other words about £40,000 less than the principal at even a modest sixth form college and yet an MP services the needs of around 70,000 constituents, not just 1,500 students. A chap who kicks a football around may earn £5m. Which one of these is overpaid?
Remember, I’m talking here about allowances or wages. The skulduggery of bogus expenses claims during the last parliament was something else and totally reprehensible.
And yet, in our own Westminster upper house, the Lords earn nothing; just a daily – albeit generous – expenses claim for bringing their bottoms to sit on the red leather. Might sound like another dose of my cynicism, but it’s not. The peers, only a few of which nowadays are hereditary, bring enormous and valuable expertise to the process of Government at a bargain price to the taxpayer. Yes, I do understand the counter arguments too.
The real nub of the matter
I think what we are really steering towards in this short and potentially contentious analysis, is the public’s underlying understanding of and attitude towards democracy itself. Let’s be frank; democracy does come at a price. Maybe the innate resentment towards politicians in Britain is not so much about what they are paid, but more about their dismal performance in delivering what the citizens need; true and fair representation of the public interest.
Well, if that’s the real issue – and I suspect that it is - surely it’s back over to voters to be more discerning in whom they choose as their elected representatives. I think that opportunity is coming again soon. Your call.