At first glance, there only a loose connection between an inflation-busting 12 per cent pay rise for MPs, which apparently will be announced today, and Ed Miliband's wish to bar Labour candidates at the next election from outside earnings of more than £10,000 above their MP's salary. The pay rise will happen (unless legislation is rushed in to stop it taking place) and Miliband's ban may not: it is very hard to how it would be enforceable, at least on paper. But both developments show a clear and continuing direction of travel.
We are moving further and further away from the age of MP as citizen legislator, free to work and earn outside the Commons, and more and more deeply into the era of the MP as professional politician, who is funded by the taxpayer – and, therefore, not so free . This change is probably a gain for people as constituents. Rising demands on MPs and falling confidence in them is making them work far harder in their seats than previous generations. The age of Sir Bufton Tufton, who would legendarily descend on his constituency once a year like an alien descending on Roswell, has long gone. So let's hear it for today's MPs. Never have so few worked so hard for many – in the Commons, at any rate.
But if this change is a gain for people as constituents, it is a loss for them as voters. £75,000 is excellent money: MPs are in the top three per cent of earners. And the ability of some is high: the 2010 intake is of higher quality than my own of 200, on the whole. But for the most able, higher wages won't compensate indefinitely for lower pensions, the Heath Robinson IPSA expenses regime, and the presumption of guilt under which MPs now live and work. They will make a dash for office, hold it, and get out fast, since Commons rules will no longer allow them to earn outside afterwards – certainly substantially, perhaps at all. MPs are set to turn into the Parliamentary equivalent of our old legal friend Sue, Grabbit and Run.
The consequence will be successive generations of politicians re-inventing the legislative wheel, since few former office-holders will hang around to serve as the voice of experience. There will be lots of activity but rather less action, as proper legislative scrutiny is crowded out by the hamster-wheel activity of answering e-mails from 38 Degrees. New Labour passed a lot of bad legislation (much of this Government's hasn't been properly scrutinised, either) and we have been living in recent years with the results of the change. At the back of it all is the passing of powers down to the new devolved bodies, sideways to the courts, and abroad to the EU institutions. And let's give a grimace of acknowedgement, too, to our old friend, the ECHR.
In responding to today's announcement, David Cameron will be torn between his charm offensive to Tory MPs and his politicianly instinct to try to please public opinion, so evident during the expenses crisis. But while his reaction may be uncertain, the trend of events is unmistakable. Political parties as well as MPs will increasingly be financed by the taxpayer. Like two gunslingers in a western, the Conservatives and Labour have had the drop on each other. The Tories have threatened to end Labour's union funding; Labour has threatened to end the Conservatives' uncapped donations. Both have had their pistols pointed at each other, but neither has fired, as is sometimes the way in such circumstances.
Miliband's muddled move on ending opting-in may not come to anything much, but it is none the less a sign of the times. Sooner or later, Labour's union link will be weakened. And sooner or later, too, the pressure for a cap on donations to political parties will yield a result. The flow of money to Labour from union members to the Tories from big donors will run more slowly – and taxpayer funding to both will rise further to compensate. Short Money has been the shape of things to come from the moment it was introduced. Many ConservativeHome readers will of course deplore this course of events, and want MPs once again to be citizen legislators rather than professional politicians.
This is not, however, the choice that most voters make, if we are to believe polling on the matter. Most voters buy the line that being an MP is a job. Once accepted, this view leads inexorably to fewer MPs earning outside the Commons and all gaining taxpayer-funded pay rises, mirrored by similar injections of money into the political parties. As Charles Moore has pointed out, the political parties, like the banks, have become too big to fail – and there is nothing to be gained by complaining. Collectively, we have made this bed. Now we must lie in it.