I recently blogged about the outside financial interests of our frontbench – blogging that attracted quite a lot of media coverage yesterday. I was called by a member of the shadow cabinet who mistakenly assumed I was opposed to MPs having any outside interests. In that light I thought it might be helpful to clarify my views on this topic:
- I have no reservations about backbench MPs undertaking outside paid work as long as they are transparent about what they do – to the Commons authorities and to their constituents. Parliamentary debates are likely to be better-informed if MPs retain a good connection with the outside world although I am not convinced that our MPs’ outside interests are particularly broad. My suspicion is that most are legal and financial in character. Any attempt to stop MPs pursuing outside interests would risk discouraging some of the most able individuals from both entering the Commons or from staying in the Commons. Many MPs make big financial sacrifices to enter politics. I know they choose to do so but we should be aware of those sacrifices.
- I have more reservations about shadow ministers pursuing outside interests. The combination of constituency and frontbench work should keep most MPs fully occupied. Are they really able to undertake extensive outside work in addition to these core responsibilities? The party leader, the whips’ office and individual frontbenchers need to answer that question themselves. I do not propose hard and fast rules – individuals have different capacities for hard work – although a few top jobs – Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Home Secretary and Party Chairman – probably do need 100% dedication.
- I do worry that our frontbench isn’t as actively supportive of David Cameron as Labour frontbenchers were of Tony Blair in the 1990s. I often learn of frontbenchers making inadequate preparations for debates and journalists receiving little ammunition from our team. We simply do not have enough frontbenchers who have the industry of, for example, Chris Grayling.
- The fourth point I’d make is more political and tactical. The party is talking a lot about the quality of life being at least as important as the standard of living and I welcome that our party is now taking social and ecological issues more seriously. It’s vital that we don’t appear uninterested in the fact that millions of hard-working people are struggling to make ends meet, however. There have been occasions when the Conservatives have shown some concern about squeezed household budgets but these occasions have been far too infrequent. The enthusiasm with which some of our frontbenchers look after their own incomes needs to be matched with a concern for the over-taxed majority.