The journalist Ben Goldacre has a favourite saying, and now the title of one his books: “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.” It applies to many things, but most of all to politics.
We ask a lot of our politicians. They work long days, and unless they escape somewhere far away, they’re never really on holiday. Family life is difficult and the divorce rate is high. A UK MP’s salary, currently £84,000, seems high, but that’s not so high if we’re trying to attract candidates who have already proved themselves highly competent in their own fields. At least it’s not if we expect them to give up their second jobs and become full-time MPs.
Once upon a time, the great majority of MPs were lawyers, doctors, farmers, journalists, trade union officials and so on, who were allowed to continue their extra-parliamentary activities so long as it didn’t interfere with their Commons work. I accept that there were MPs who effectively treated Westminster as their second job, and that wasn’t right. However, Parliament now seems filled with full-time career politicians, which can have unintended consequences. Some of those consequences are being seen now.
Nowadays, if an MP loses his or her seat at an election, they’re unemployed. Out of a job. On the dole, receiving benefits. There’s a short three-month parachute payment, but after that…? If there’s a landslide defeat, and many MPs suddenly all come onto the labour market at the same time, it can be really hard to find work. When the Conservatives were swept out of office in 1997, half of all the defeated MPs were still out of work six months later. Some lost their homes. It’s a genuinely scary prospect for an MP. As the Tory MP Charles Walker put it, “There’s nothing so ‘ex’ as an ex-MP.” That’s particularly the case in today’s job market.
So they’ll do anything they can to stop becoming ‘ex’. If that means defending the indefensible, they’ll do it. If it means supporting some dimwit to become party leader, they’ll do it. If they’re asked questions on party policy by media journalists, they’ll talk gibberish in support of the party line rather than give the honest, considered answer they’d really prefer to offer.
Most MPs – of all parties – are usually described by their constituents as “hard-working on behalf of their constituents”. They enjoy attending uncontroversial local events, or helping individual constituents with housing or financial problems. I can’t imagine they enjoy being ordered to give open public support to tripe.
Many of these MPs know there should be an election. They’ve had enough, but they’ve nowhere to go, the inevitable result of our insistence that politicians work full time. Perhaps the time has come to provide a softer landing for ex-MPs. It’s not the first thing that comes into your head when you look at the current circus act that calls itself Westminster politics. But it’s a little more complicated than that.