Coffee House

Parliament itself shouldn’t drag MPs down

24 January 2014

The conventional image of Parliament is of a grand, imposing building packed with ancient traditions. The reality for those who work in it isn’t quite so glamorous: mouse-infested offices, administrative chaos, and weeks of camping in committee rooms when you first arrive as an MP. Even though Parliament has been around for much longer than modern companies, it still has the internal feel of a start-up that just accidentally spiralled into something much bigger, with MPs fending for themselves when it comes to employing and managing their staff, for instance. I write about the way that this chaos makes the job of an MP just that bit less attractive to continue doing in my Telegraph column today.

Now, it’s easy to mock MPs for complaining about their working conditions when they are paid far more than the average salary, can enjoy hefty outside earnings from directorships, and can, if they’re not deathly dull, enjoy some quite nice hospitality from journalists, lobbyists and other sorts who inhabit their bubble. But the problem is that if Parliament itself is a bit chaotic, and you’ve come into politics from a better-paid profession to work longer hours and read a stream of abuse about you on social media, then you might be forgiven for wondering whether the career change and pay cut were worth it. It is quite revealing when talking to members of the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs, for instance, that many of them become distinctly despondent not about their prospects for promotion or whether the PM talked to or looked at them recently (that sort of anxiety tends to manifest itself primarily among the 2005 intake, who feel they have more reason to be bitter on both counts) but just about the sheer frustrations of trying to do their job. If Parliament wants to represent wider society, perhaps modernisation of the way it is run wouldn’t be the worst step.


But even before MPs turn up, slightly giddy with excitement and exhaustion after an election campaign, they’ve already been filtered by the demands of campaigning. I spoke to three former candidates for the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems late last year for Radio 4’s Week in Westminster programme, and all three pointed to significant tolls on their personal finances and time in becoming a candidate for their party and then campaigning in the election itself. The expenditure and time commitment involved means that those without personal means, such as those from low-income backgrounds, or those without personal flexibility, such as those in demanding full-time jobs, are put off entering politics. Candidates often fight elections in unwinnable seats to prove themselves before being given a shot at ones with a real chance. But if you don’t have personal wealth or a boss who approves of you taking weeks off to knock on doors, then chances are you won’t even enter the selection process.

Conservative candidates in highly marginal seats, for instance, have targets for the number of days they spend campaigning, the number of newspaper articles and blogs they write, and so on. If they don’t meet them, they are given a series of warnings, and can end up being asked to stand down from the candidacy altogether, normally by mutual arrangement. This is understandable as the party wants to win those target seats and doesn’t want someone who isn’t committed to the campaign. But it does narrow down the field of possible candidates: there are very few professions or trades where the job interview requires you to take weeks of holiday and spend a lump of your own money before you even know you’ve got the job.

Does this matter? If we want our politicians to represent us and to have a sporting chance of fighting the out-of-touch charge then yes, it does. And it seems a little silly that the daily grind of being an MP can be so chaotic that it grinds some MPs down when they might have a great deal to offer public life for many years.

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  • SimonToo

    Did parliament not build St. Stephen’s House so that there would be sufficient offices? Presumably each office is allocated to a particular constituency.

  • SimonToo

    What promotion is there for an MP, other than election as [Deputy] Speaker ? Chairmanship of a committee may be some advancement, but is temporary. Of course, an MP may take a second job in government, but that is far from the only source of second jobs.

  • sfin

    The simple solution to this, and many other problems – such as pay and conditions (expenses), is to remove the whole concept of ‘career’ from politics.

    We need to return to the days when political life was a privileged service, given by those who had achieved – and I don’t just mean in pure financial terms – charity or union workers, scientists for example – should all be helped into politics if that is what they desire. Thereafter the idea of ‘career’ should cease entirely – as a safeguard to this there should be a minimum age for entry to Westminster – say 50 years old. Pensions should be generous to reflect the level of public service of the individual – but pay and conditions should not rise higher than current levels.

    Surely, democratic politics is nothing, if it isn’t about public service – the current lot of ‘me, me, me’ politicians, as well as our identikit, forty something, PPE from Oxbridge, full head of hair, no discernable accent, party leaders has completely turned off the electorate. And that is a dangerous thing.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    MPs fending for themselves when it comes to employing and managing their staff
    The poor dears. Why do they have staff at all? Their job is to scrutinise government legislation and to control government spending, voting on behalf of their constituents. They are under no obligation to write to these constituents or to act as an unofficial ombudsman for the state. Indeed doing so makes themselves Westminster’s representatives in their constituencies, which is the opposite of what they should be, their constituents’ representatives in Westminster. The reality of much of their offices’ work is that it is covert campaigning, paid for by the state, increasing the advantage of incumbency and diminishing democracy. Get rid of the flunkies, all of them.

    • SimonToo

      A secretary is a reasonable necessity. The rest is vanity, at best. Were they really necessary, the MP would pay for them from his own earnings.

  • Smithersjones2013

    I can guess where this is going and unless the party system is heavily reformed and the party leaderships are stripped of much of their over-centralised power there can be no renewal for the Westminster Freakshow and certainly there should be no more money. They cost us far too much already (and that’s without IPSA’s most unwelcome interference).

  • Colin56

    While I’m not broadly sympathetic to MPs moaning about the pay and rations, I do think that Parliament ought to provide its members with proper offices and office facilities, including research and support staff, from day 1. There’s no reason why newly elected MPs should be any less worthy of having proper facilities from which to represent their constituents than an MP who’s been around for a decade or more. Why should their constituents be thus disadvantaged? Every MP should have offices, facilities, equipment and staff provided centrally – much as happens when you take up a job in a company or other organisation – and this would stop the preferential ‘old boy’ treatment, and also stop MPs employing their families, lovers and other hangers on. It would also mean an end of those ridiculous expenses claims for office costs and the costs variance between MPs. Committee chairmen etc would merit greater support and research resources according to need. Similarly, leases etc for constituency offices should be made directly with the Parliamentary authorities rather than between MPs and the landlord, again cutting out the possibility of cosy little deals.
    None of this is rocket science. Why hasn’t it been done? Answers on a postcard please.

  • swatnan

    Not to mention the ‘lechterous gropers’ prowling around the Palace.
    In the old days people actually paid good money to buy a seat for the privelige of being an MP. Its a privelige to serve; so stop whinging.

  • HookesLaw

    The last paragraph is pertinent.
    The merry-go-round of usual suspects always fall back on the ‘never had a proper job’ line and the reality is that its a full time job trying to get into politics and to parliament.

    • Smithersjones2013

      Of course that being the case it is quite amazing how many MP’s actually had real lives before Westminster. The lawyers, the soldiers, the nurses, the public sector workers, the businessmen and financiers, the health professionals and so forth.

      Now if getting into politics is a full time job how is it these people managed to have a career before being elected?

      Of course when people talk about those who’ve ‘never had a proper job’ they are referring to those with the likes of a PPE degrees who instead of working for a living become a SPAD for one poltical party or another (it doesn’t really matter which one so long as it gives them a decent chance of climbing the political ladder) and then through their contacts within the party they manage to work themselves a cushy safe constituency.

      Once again Hooky woefully misinterprets what is written.

  • MalcolmRedfellow

    “Drag MPs down” I thought they’d made us wait until 7 May 2015 for that pleasure.

    Must admit, the concept has a certain attraction.

    Anyway, cheering thought to start the weekend.

  • guidofawkes

    If you can’t take the heat…

    • Julian Kavanagh

      This from the man that’s never stood for public office despite being happy to take pathetic and cheap pots shots at those that have the guts to get elected. What inane twats you and your group of gurning acolytes are.

      • guidofawkes

        I’m not fit for public office.

        • In2minds

          Indeed, your honesty precludes you

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      • telemachus

        This is a brilliant description of most of the right wing bloggers and gravy boaters gathered here

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