By Paul Goodman
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How to get a high-turnover Commons…
We could want a high-turnover House of Commons. How would we go about getting it? One effective means would be to cut MPs' pay, ban them from working outside and curb their expenses. I suspect that this would mar the quality of the Commons less than some believe. After all, the new intake of Conservative MPs has entered Parliament despite frozen pay and curtailed expenses, and it is one of the most talented ones for many years. Some of those who consider becoming MPs will always act on the thought: so it was, is now, and ever shall be.
But ambition or the desire to serve the public or political conviction or egotism – the usual jumble of emotions – is capable of burning itself out. By any ordinary standard, MPs' pay is high: they are in the top three per cent of earners. However, Tory MPs in particular don't use this as a measurement. They look instead at what their contemporaries are earning in business. Families hauled into the Westminster – and constituency – village don't always like it there.
…In which MPs become glorified caseworkers
Nor do the MPs themselves. This Commons is in many ways better than the last one. To its credit, the Government has delivered Conservative manifesto commitments on the election of select committee chairman and members and a backbench business committee: the legislature has wrestled some powers back from the executive. But rightly or wrongly, many MPs don't care for what they see as a triple whammy: curbed expenses, petrified pay and registration of interest conditions that make work outside the Commons less likely.
It is easy to see where all this is likely to lead. New MPs will arrive in Commons as eager as ever to scramble the ladder of preferment. Either they will race up it as swiftly as possible – and leave the Commons as soon as they're knocked off – or go quickly if they don't ascend at all, since they are unlikely to want to serve indefinitely as glorified caseworkers. The voice of experience – or that with contemporary knowledge of the world of work – will quieten to a whisper.
How to get a low-turnover Commons…
Or instead we could plump for a low-turnover Commons. This wouldn't be inconsistent with cutting MPs pay. If we want MPs who are citizen legislators rather than professional politicians (my preferred option), we would do so but take some of the restrictions off outside earnings. If we want MPs who are professional politicians rather than citizen legislators (the trend in recent years), we would raise the pay but ban outside earnings altogether. But either way, we would recognise that receipted expenses are a Morton's Fork, at least as far as MPs are concerned.
The view of some is that if they claim, they'll be pilloried – compared unfavourably by their local papers to their colleagues who don't claim – and that if they do they'll be out of pocket. There is a robust answer to this: claim what you think is right, and be prepared to stand by your judgement. But my point is less about reason than emotion. If MPs believe that they are being treated unreasonably, a low-turnover Commons is les likely to happen.
…Which has real world expertise and isn't a rich man's club
And it is also likely on the Conservative side gradually to become a club for the rich – who will be able to afford to linger while their poorer colleagues quit. This is the fate of which Adam Afriyie (who isn't short of a penny or two himself) has consistently warned, and it reflects well on him. Those who want to see a low-turnover Commons should therefore see sense in his proposal to replace receipted expenses with flat-rate allowances. It would be an irony indeed were the present system eventually to justify Labour's claim about the Tory Parliamentary Party.
I admit that trying to find a man who supports MPs is like trying to locate the Higgs boson particle. It is possible if not likely that only 650 people in a country of over 60 million have the slightest sympathy for them – namely, MPs themselves. (I am excepting their families, which may or may not be right.) If so, I confess to adding to that number and being the 651st. Having been one for ten years may have something to do with it. But it isn't necessary to have a smidgeon of feeling for them to conclude that a lower-turnover Commons is better than the alternative.