How do they sleep?


Apparently, British MPs are after a pay rise of over 30%, which would see them earning £86,250 a year.  A recent survey, which the people’s representatives filled in anonymously, reported that over twice that proportion finds that the current level of £65,738 is less than they’re worth.

Tories thought they should get close to a hundred grand, while the average Labour estimate was £77,322, around a thousand less than the Liberal Democrats think they should trouser.  These are the same people who voted to cap public sector pay rises at 1%, which is, happily, what they will in reality get.

I am reluctant to join in the UK’s national sport of politician-bashing, which in general I feel plays directly into the hands of the anti-democratic far right, and would point out a number of things in the MPs’ defence.

Firstly, don’t forget that a third of them said they were happy with their current levels of pay.

Secondly, though I have no direct experience of Westminster, I worked for almost twenty years at the European Parliament and know that whatever else they may be, MEPs are generally hard-working and take their jobs seriously. I presume the same goes for MPs, though this is also true of many people who earn a great deal less than sixty-odd thousand pounds. Many jobs require just the same levels of dedication and knowledge which we should be entitled to expect of our elected representatives.

Thirdly, we should also remember that payment of MPs began in the UK only just over a century ago, and was a basic demand of the early labour movement. Without it, only those of independent means could run for office, or those who could find someone to pay them, which represented a drain on the resources of trade unions and a constant temptation to compromise one’s position in return for financial support.

None of this justifies, however, the apparently widespread belief in the Westminster Parliament that almost £70,000 a year is inadequate, or that pay rises thirty times greater than those of others in the public employ would be reasonable.

 For several of my years at the European Parliament  I was employed as a political advisor by the Socialist Party of the Netherlands I worked in Brussels with the SP’s Euro-MP and his colleagues in the United European Left political group. I continue to work on an ad hoc, part-time basis for the SP, for the most part as a translator, so can confirm that the party’s practices when I was its employee have not changed.

The SP has fifteen MPs and a single MEP, and each of them follows what is called the 'subtraction rule', taking the equivalent of what in the Netherlands is a skilled workers' wage (around £20,000, or almost €24000 p.a.). Receipted expenses are also covered by the party.  

Although the actual salaries are comparable, in reality Euro-MPs have many more opportunities to milk the system in ways which contravene neither internal rules nor the general law, than do MPs at Westminster.

Each month every Euro-MP receives €4,299 (£3566.73) for ‘general expenses’. These may be used to cover office equipment, expenses for guest experts, or much of anything that takes your fancy, as no-one will ever ask to see your receipts.

You would imagine that any employer would keep some track of who is spending how much and what they are spending on. Private companies may be extravagant when it comes to their executive staff, but this is generally a controlled and monitored extravagance, as they are also jealous of their profits. Public employees, and elected representatives as well as those who work with them, are spending taxpayers’ money, and being responsible to the public is surely at least as important as being responsible to shareholders.

This is not, however, the prevailing attitude in the European Parliament. Dennis de Jong, the SP’s sitting MEP, was elected in 2009, and tells how after his first year in office he turned up at the admin offices with his receipts. “They looked at me as if I was bonkers,” De Jong says. “We don’t do anything with those, sir, they told me, because we aren’t allowed to monitor your books, unless there is evidence of large-scale fraud.”

De Jong finds that, despite having lots of guests whose expenses are covered and maintaining an office as well-equipped as any, he has at least €30.000 (over £36,000) left over. He wonders whether other MEPs are simply lining their own pockets.

Some, perhaps the majority, no doubt are. Others, many on the left, donate the surplus to their own parties. Dennis simply pays his back, no doubt confirming the ‘bonkers’ theory, but also his own and his party’s reputation for scrupulous honesty and transparency.

I lived perfectly well in central Brussels on the salary left to me when I had paid my contribution under the subtraction rule, as party officials in the public pay, as I was at the European Parliament, follow the same rule.  Despite insisting that the surplus ‘general expenses’ are paid back, the amount the SP receives in payments under the subtraction rule enables it to maintain a healthy financial balance sheet, which means in turn that it can compete with parties whose politics appeal to richer voters and influential corporations.

To sum up, everyone in the SP’s employ, or a public position derived from their membership of the party, receives a decent living wage. Any expenses which occur as a result of their party function are reimbursed.

So my question is simply this: what is the matter with these British MPs? Why can't they live on what is already more than most people get? Are they somehow special? Do they have different metabolisms to mere mortals? How can they vote for 'austerity' policies and then demand a huge pay rise?

Steve McGiffen is Spectrezine’s editor. From 1986 to 1999 he was assistant to the late Tom Megahy, at that time MEP for Yorkshire South-West in England. Thereafter he was employed by SP Euro-MP Erik Meijer, and then represented the SP on the Secretariat of the United Left Group (GUE-NGL).