How much do you value your MP and the British model of parliamentary democracy? Only 1% of the electorate are members of the major parties and public opinion is generally disillusioned with politicians.
The expenses scandal, broken promises and unpopular policies explain this. The 2010 election produced no party with a majority, making a coalition unavoidable and policy compromises inevitable. Austerity has hit people’s pockets and looks like lasting longer than expected. All this creates the worst possible context in which to announce a 12% pay raise for MPs.
This has come from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority created to prevent MPs setting their own pay and expenses. The raise would give them £75,000 but would be partially offset by cuts in perks and the golden goodbye paid to defeated and retiring MPs after an election. Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg oppose the raise, anticipating public anger, given that public sector pay raises are limited to 1%.
This controversy coincides with a second, related to party funding. The Labour Party was founded by trade unionists to represent working people but is increasingly dominated by people who have little experience of manual labour. Unsurprisingly union leaders want to reverse this trend and Unite paid for 100 of its members to join the Falkirk Labour party to influence selection of the parliamentary candidate. This was legal but looked bad and Ed Miliband blocked the move and delivered a speech this week on curbing the influence of unions in the party. He proposed changing party rules so that trade unionists would have to opt-in to contributing to party funds instead of the current opt-out rule. Miliband also attacked large donations from hedge funds to the Conservative party and proposed a £5,000 cap on individual donations to all parties and a limit of £10,000 to what MPs could earn on top of their MP salary.
Public disillusionment, declining party memberships and reduced donation income would create massive financial problems for political parties. A limit on MPs’ earnings could also deter high earning, experienced people standing for Parliament. Weaker parties could also change the way Parliament works, encouraging independent-minded MPs and making Government more unpredictable and less accountable. Some voters would welcome this but others will be concerned that it could lead to the sort of issue- driven populism that UKIP currently offers. More alarming would be the creation of a political vacuum in which an authoritarian regime might seize control as in Germany in the 1930s.
Politics is the means by which we choose who governs us and we make that choice on the basis of what the competing candidates and their parties offer us. If we don’t like what is on offer the most intelligent option is not to opt out of politics but to take part and influence the values and policies that are offered. We all share a responsibility for making democracy work. It may not be a perfect political model but as Churchill observed, it is better than the alternatives.