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Cllr Gareth Lyon is a councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

The last century has seen a well-intentioned, but largely self-defeating, attempt to improve the honesty, responsiveness, and accountability of our political system by spending more on it. Instead, we have seen the rise of an increasingly well insulated professional political class, the hollowing out of voluntary parties, and the creation of an institutional ratchet which is dragging political thought to the statist establishment left.

1911 saw the first Parliamentary pay structure introduced in an attempt to curb what were perceived to be unaccountable outside influences on MPs’ political priorities and decision-making. It was also an attempt to widen access to political careers. The second of these reasons, however, does not really stand up as a justification. This reform happened at a time when such access was already widening considerably, largely as a result of the “outside influences” – or independent interests, such as trade unions, cooperative societies and philanthropists. The widening access we have seen over the past century would be likely to have occurred anyway. So, we are left with a system which depends for its legitimacy on the somewhat contentious proposition that the last century has seen a profound and remarkable rise in the honesty and fairmindedness of our Parliament.

The payroll for our MPs, in turn, led to allowances for Peers, MPs’ expenses, and the proliferation of MPs’ staff, and most perniciously of all, Short Money.

Clearly Parliamentarians and their staff must be paid but each extension of the taxpayer’s largesse has helped to establish a career path for the so-called “career politicians” of tabloid ire and a largely unaccountable ecosystem of policy advisors, researchers and party staff insulated from outside influences, contributing to the increasing disconnect between political decision-makers and the wider community. As with any institution, these party machines have developed their own independent interests and agendas.

Whilst some of the outcry which occurred about MPs expenses and salaries was disproportionate and unfair, it was more than justified by the underlying sense that politicians have increasingly been able to carve out quite comfortable arrangements for themselves and assorted hangers-on in a manner which would not be tolerated in other walks of life.

Sadly the “solution” – IPSA has ended up not just costing more but providing Parliamentarians with an easy excuse for their own ever-increasing costs, and a veneer of legitimacy for claims that MPs need to be paid more to bring them in line with “comparable” professions elsewhere – in order to attract the right people. Yet this argument assumes, in the face of all evidence in recent years, that by paying MPs better we will attract better people into Parliament, when at best all it does is to reward the same people better – and at worst it attracts more avaricious people into public life.

The rot has even reached down to local council level. When I was first elected I was surprised and mildly embarrassed to discover that I would receive a “councillors’ allowance”, and indeed the amounts paid to councillors, at least in my area, are small. But it does end up factoring into people’s thinking more than you might think. I know a great many councillors around the country who treat being a councillor as their “job” and are dependent on it for a major part of their income.

This ought not to be the case. By professionalising councillors, we are repeating Parliament’s mistake at a local level and insulating our local politicians from real-world economic pressures and influences. This also influences the dynamics in local councils where more and more councillors seek office, “promotion” and to collect offices and responsibilities at different local government tiers (borough, county, fire authority etc) – the loss of which, whether by means of election, selection or political decision making, hurt all the more as the wound is not just to pride but to pocket. I am sure that this is producing more cautious and mutually dependent councillors than we would really want. It is also, in some cases I am aware of, being used to produce a culture of patronage.

Of course most people who go into local politics do it for the right reasons and despite the institutional pull described above, continue to serve for the right reasons – but even here there is a challenge, with local political associations increasingly struggling to get good people willing to take on challenging voluntary roles as Chairman and as Deputies, when there are easier and paid alternatives.

The increasing presence of political advisors in local government – paid for out of local taxes to devise policy and political strategies for their parties, not necessarily in the interests of all taxpayers, is one more marker showing that local politics is following the misguided example of Parliament.

Ever recurring proposals for larger scale state funding of parties shows that the ratchet driven by these institutional interests continues to operate. Without even getting into the questionable morality of requiring taxpayers to fund political parties with whom they disagree, it should also be clear that this would undermine democracy and ultimately faith in politics even further.

Because ultimately the original hypothesis of those in 1911 railing against outside influences in politics were right, money does over time buy influence in politics. As such, ever greater state funding of politics and the eradication of independent funding is inevitably being followed by ever greater statism in political thought and the decline of independent thought and action in politics.

20 comments for: Gareth Lyon: By professionalising councillors, we are repeating Parliament’s mistake at a local level

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