The unholy alliance of Ed Milliband and the Speaker, John Bercow, seem to think that preventing MPs from holding second jobs, in effect establishing professional MPs by statute, is both a good idea and what the public want. This is utter bilge, as anyone but a Westminster insider would instinctively know.
A professional MP would be entirely reliant upon his (or her – for brevity I will use the masculine form) income to support their families through life. He would be very keen to improve his income by securing advancement up the appointment chain to ministerial rank. As such advancement is entirely in the gift of the Prime Minister he would be strongly motivated not to rock the boat. MPs used to moan about being “lobby fodder” and changes were made, specifically to the selection of select committee chairmen, to address this. These in turn have turned select committees into powerful tools for holding government and executive to account. A professional politician be more or less prepared to embarrass government if his sole hope of further advancement came from the head of the government that his committee was embarrassing? Even a lowly professional MP making points about the impact of policy on his constituents would often be put in the position of having to risk his career to do his job.
There is not, in fact, enough work for an MP to fill all their time. The Parliamentary recesses are long and there is only so much that an MP has to do in his constituency. Too many MPs see themselves as having a close involvement in matters that are actually within the remit of local government. While this may get them coverage in local newspapers, it is not their primary job – which is to scrutinise the legislation used and created by the government.
Some, including Bercow, advance the idea that Parliament should sit for longer to enable it to do more. The author and satirist PJ O’Rorke wrote in 1976 celebrating the 200th anniversary of American independence, “Surely after 200 years of legislation we have enough laws”. He then advocated electing a federal government and sending it home for a period of inactivity until something requiring new legislation came up. In the UK Parliament has been sitting in Westminster for far longer than that, and we have the legal chaos to prove it. The simple, awful fact is that passing laws does not always achieve the desired outcome and almost always delivers unfortunate unintended adverse consequences. MPs spending more time creating more legislation is unlikely to improve the electorate’s quality of life. The State of Texas and Switzerland have government bodies that meet far less often and yet run healthy democracies. There is no evidence that more government benefits anyone so there is no inherent benefit in MPs having the time to sit for longer.
A bigger problem is who on earth would want to become a professional MP? The pay will not be great and the terms of service, (promotion at the whim of the PM, instant dismissal at the whim of the electorate), not conducive, even with the prospect of a happy retirement in the Lords. It is not obvious who would want to employ an ex-MP (as opposed to an ex-Minister), as Lembit Opik demonstrated. This means that as well as seeking a safer seat any prudent professional MP will be currying favour with potential employers throughout his career. This hardly removes the alleged conflicts of interest that so excite Messers Milliband and Bercow. Brilliantly they have chosen to advocate a system that is likely to be far more abused than the current one.
The exception to the lack of employers is the lobbying companies, although they are more interested in ex-ministers than lowly former backbenchers. I suspect that their influence is vastly overstated and I do have some experience of this, both in UK and overseas. I have never used such a company; in the UK if I really need to contact a minister I go through my MP. No charge; it’s their job and they are happy to help. Overseas is different in as much as one needs to circumvent the language barriers and the lack of a basis for obtaining help. I have found embassies and the DTi incredibly helpful and reasonably effective, again at no charge. Quite what Straw and Rifkind thought they were doing is one thing; the fact that they had not already been signed up by a lobbying firm implies that lobbying is far less extensive than some allege. If individuals are silly enough to pay companies to help them achieve what they could for free then more fool them.
So if professional MPs are a bad idea how can we ensure that MPs are able to take up other jobs without compromising their independence? Well actually the current system is not too bad and could easily be improved. MPs have to register all their financial interests, and that register should be public. If they speak on a subject that is likely to have a direct impact on these they must declare such an interest and should not vote.
The final question is how to make Parliament more compatible with second careers. Clearly some compensation will have to be paid for MPs time but the simple answer is to turn the clock back to when second careers were the norm. Of course, this would make it hard for full time parents to be MPs, but that is a choice for them. Turning the House of Commons into a crèche, as has happened, is not in the benefit of the children, their parents or the country.
The issue is on the Westminster agenda because Labour think that it’s one that they can make the Tories look bad on, which they can provided that they gloss over the facts which include Labour MPs being paid by trades unions, which just might explain in part the bloated government apparatus that is bankrupting the country. The most overtly socialist leader of Labour in my lifetime, Michael Foot, regularly wrote for newspapers throughout his career. But Milliband has never let the facts get in the way of stirring up the politics of envy.
The debate on what we want from Parliament and how we should select MPs is vital. Unfortunately many MPs are not fit to debate it. We are sleepwalking into the world of the professional politician, and from there the state funding of political parties is but a small step. As the optimum solution might well require persuading some professional MPs to vote against their personal interest it may be time to elect some fresh faces from outside the Westminster bubble. In most constituencies that would be the UKIP one.