James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
At the time of writing, the last poll I could find on whether MPs should be allowed “second jobs” revealed massive public opposition. By 54 per cent to 28 per cent, a 2015 Yougov poll showed people would support a ban. It’s not impossible the numbers have moved somewhat since then, but it’d be shocking if they’d flipped over into public support.
It isn’t hard to fathom where opposition comes from. Forget who’s right, there’s a complete mismatch between what MPs think about themselves and what the public think. MPs think they’re underpaid; most people think a £75,000 salary is very large. MPs think their expenses are modest; most people have little or no ability to claim expenses of any kind. MPs think they work hard on local issues; most people don’t follow their activities and have no idea about what they do.
To many people, if not most, hearing MPs have well-paid second jobs is confirmation they’re using the time they’re paid to represent their constituents on doing work that’ll just make them richer. Nothing will persuade them otherwise.
Politicians and commentators who argue Parliament is a richer place for MPs having outside interests have a point. Whether that’s keeping in touch with the burdens of small business life by helping run a firm, or understanding the technicalities of financial markets by providing consultancy advice, politicians with direct and current experience of real life are useful asset. But those members of the public that oppose MPs having outside interests have a point, too.
It’s not just that MPs get well paid (absolutely, if not relatively) and have a duty to represent constituents to the best of their ability. More than that, politicians have helped create a country where the state takes an ever more important role in our economy and society. Whether it’s the endless demands placed on businesses to ensure their operations match current political demands, or the costs lumped on to consumer goods to reflect the preoccupations of health conscious politicians, or the insistence that parents never take their children out of school, MPs are intervening everywhere in ordinary people’s lives.
It’s hard for politicians to force through such measures on the one hand, while claiming their own working lives should continue as if Lord Salisbury was still Prime Minister – as if Parliament only focused on great matters of state and as if the state barely touched most people’s lives. I’m personally sympathetic to the argument that Parliaments should be short and do little; but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth – there’s an endless amount to discuss as a direct result of what politicians do and plan. In short, if politicians are going to create such an interventionist state, they need to be on hand to manage it and regulate it on a full-time basis.
Does that mean a ban on all outside interests? Writing regular columns or appearing on TV regularly hardly seems like a breach of either the letter or the spirit of the desire to stop so-called second jobs. Plenty of people combine such activities with a full-time job (me included). But spending days a week on outside business is surely a distraction from the job they are supposed to be doing to the best of their ability and which MPs claim is all-consuming.