What is most notable in the latest parliamentary gotcha is how the two senior MPs at the centre of the allegations perceive their roles. Within the chasm that sits between public expectations and parliamentary standards both have pursued their own interpretation of what is required of a modern MP. Both the public and the MPs are right- or least neither is obviously wrong given current rules. It’s not particularly spelled out.
For Malcolm Rifkind, an MP is akin to a barrister and Parliament a barristers’ set. Essentially, you have been given a licence to practise by being an MP. You have a subsistence and a pension (rather more generous than any barrister set) and you pursue a mixture of public and private roles from this position (though the balance is towards the former). You might become Foreign Secretary, a select committee chairman, or you might accept some advisory roles and directorships. Your time is your own and your accountability is to your local electorate once every few years only (and they can see your private work in the Register of Members’ interests so it’s transparent).
Jack Straw’s take is slightly different. For him, his role is more heavily a public one. He has given many decades of service. He supplements his income through a number of discrete but high paying activities. Having given so much over a long period of time (and he has as has Malcolm Rifkind) he now wants to set up some activities to keep himself busy and energised in his post-parliamentary life.
Now, it’s easy to point out that the public has a rather different take on what is expected of MPs. Indeed, many MPs do and Malcolm Rifkind is now stepping down as a consequence. The public expects you to give over your whole life to pursue their ends (rather conveniently ignoring the fact that there are many conflicting ends that you are meant to pursue). You should be utterly selfless, give your all and be charismatic and gracious at all times. You have to represent every local and personal concern and be a national and international legislative participant simultaneously.
Rifkind and Straw find themselves at the centre of the void between the general public’s (unreasonable) expectations and their own private goals (which may also be unreasonable). The point is where is this discussed and agreed other than fleetingly as and when the next MP is caught out? Just what is the point of being an MP?
Institutional change is as its very core an attempt to better align private needs and goals and public expectations. It is about balancing private and public values. This process is needed across our public institutions – not least in Parliament itself.
What is required is not another Parliamentary committee to review the rules. Instead, there needs to be an open dialogue about what we expect from our MPs. Should they directly represent the views of their constituents? Or, as Edmund Burke once said, do they owe their constituents their judgement and are we betrayed by the representative sacrificing it to public opinion? What do we expect them do locally and nationally? What is it reasonable to expect them to do (and not do!)? Is it a full-time role (I suspect so) and so what is appropriate for MPs to do outside of Parliament on a remunerated basis? How should they engage with their constituents and how can that activity be funded?
The popular media narrative has been against the professionalisation of politics. Actually, this is precisely wrong. We need a more professional politics. At the core there should be a new MP’s contract with broad roles outlined as well as an ethical code. But the nature of this contract should be decided through public dialogue. Ireland has led the way with its public convention around constitutional change. Our expectations of MPs should be set neither through knee-jerk populism nor cosy deals. Participative conventions are the way forward.
And frankly, all the arguments about MPs not being paid enough are junk. MPs are paid a good salary with excellent benefits. Sure, there are many who lose income by being MPs. That’s tough and we should expect that for public service. If MPs decide they want to make more money and leave Parliament to do so that’s absolutely fine. There are not only 650 people capable of being MPs. There are thousands. Any argument otherwise is just pure vanity. If there is a greater churn of representatives then that may actually be a very good thing. The participative convention might even decide on rules of tenure.
In the main MPs are public-spirited, dedicated and try their best. To the outside world their behaviours look frankly bizarre as any viewer of ‘In the Commons’, a current fly-on-the-wall documentary, can testify. The public are not getting what they expect but some of their demands are unreasonable. The only way to bridge the divide is to bring Parliament and the public together in a structured way. It will help MPs manage their role and the public decide what its reasonable demands and expectations of MPs are. It might even decide mechanisms to remove them if they fall short of the new contract.
This stuff matters; if it’s not addressed Parliament and the public will grow further apart – especially in the context of a hung Parliament accompanied by a Government with a slim majority. A functioning democracy is a necessary condition of a successful society. We have some work to do.
Anthony Painter is the RSA’s Director of Policy and Organisation Change
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