The case for part-time MPs

30th May, 2013 11:20 am

Earlier this week, Mark Ferguson espoused an entirely sensible – and extremely popular – viewpoint:

“If you’re doing a second job, then you’re not giving your full attention to your first one. And all MPs have a duty of care to their constituency, their voters and their party to give their full time to their work as MPs. I’m afraid that means you too, Gordon Brown, regardless of whether or not the money goes to charity. After all this isn’t about the money – it’s about focussing the job you were elected to do.”

It’s an appealing reaction but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily the right one. I’m not convinced that it’s wrong, either, but here’s the case for part time MPs:

1. Where do you draw the line?
Presumably we want good constituency MPs who have built their election campaigns on community engagement to carry on as, for example, trustees of local charities. If, as Mark claims, this “isn’t about the money” then why would we treat charitable work any differently to paid employment? Do we want to stop MPs volunteering to help children read in their local school? Surely this is part of the job, which brings me on to…

2. What is the job of a representative?
The task of representation requires a great deal of empathy. Representing constituents – their lives and experiences, their challenges and aspirations – is undoubtedly something that a vast number of MPs are very skilled at. But what better way to gain an insight into the ‘on the ground realities’ of ‘real’ working life than spending part of the week actually living it? Which leads into…

3. Don’t we want to prevent a political class?
John Locke wrote that “in governments, where the legislative is in one lasting assembly always in being… they [politicians] will think themselves to have a distinct interest from the rest of the community”. One way to mitigate this is democracy. There is always a chance that a politician can lose his/her seat and return to “the rest of the community”. Intertwined with this is ensuring the rule of law: that no politician is above the laws that they enact. This is clearly the case with criminal law (see Mr. C Huhne) but there is a whole raft of legislation and regulation which doesn’t apply to a career politician. Sure, no single MP could ever experience the effects of all legislation directly, but if you run a small business, government bureaucracy is your daily struggle, not just a constituent’s. If you work for a trade union, exploitative businesses are your daily caseload, not just a constituent’s. If you’re a part time teacher, Michael Gove’s decisions change your working life, not just a constituent’s. The list goes on because government policy affects working life. If MPs lived it on a weekly basis, they might not be so detached and we might – just possibly – start to break into the political class that we all bemoan.

Being an MP is very well remunerated job paying, as Mark notes, about three times the average salary. It’s certainly not unreasonable to point out that its taxpayers’ money and, frankly, we want our money’s worth.

So why not have part time MPs? One response is that being an MP is a vocation from which you cannot – and should not – switch off. But we don’t want to exclude parents with young families from being MPs and, actually, it’s unlikely that burnt out MPs who never switch off are going to make the right decisions. We should at least consider whether part time politicians could be part of the solution.

There would be various ways of doing it. We could shorten the parliamentary week to 3 days but make up for lost time with less time spent in recess. We could have job-sharing MPs. We could just make it clear that being an MP should only be a five day a week job. None of these suggestions is flawless. No doubt some of them are impractical. It would take careful consideration. But we certainly shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand.

It is also worth bearing in mind that ministers do, effectively, take on another job: being a minister. Given how much of the working day ministerial activities account for – to the detriment of constituents – there would be a strong case for allowing backbenchers to have outside interests but prohibiting it for frontbenchers. This could also help to avoid ‘conflict of interest’ issues as decisions taken by frontbenchers are often more significant.

One final thought: ‘Is this not just part of being a liberal democracy?’ Candidates for election make all sorts of choices about how to spend their time and energy. We, the electorate, judge them on it. If they don’t live up to our expectations, we vote for someone else. I’m not naive, our democracy isn’t perfect but I’m just not convinced that further alienating the political class from the realities

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