MPs are paid pretty well. That’s certainly true and it’s is worth saying right at the top. But this financial compensation doesn’t seem anything like enough to make up for everything that goes along with it.
MPs work incredibly long hours, sometimes their formal work means putting in 70 hour weeks. And outside of those 70 hours, you are never really “off”. You live in your constituency, so every trip to the supermarket and every school run means meeting those you represent. Which is great a lot of the time, but sometimes there are days for all of us when we just want to race around Tescos anonymously buying crisps. That isn’t possible when your face is the one that represents the area.
And if it were simply a case of constituents expecting you to be available to them 24/7 (despite your party being the one that campaigned on and won important Labour laws such as the Working Time Directive and the right to paid holidays and weekends) that would be OK. Because you do love what you do, and you do love helping people. It’s why you got into it in the first place.
But alongside the lack of a private life is the constant suspicion. The constant abuse. Why are you out to dinner with your husband? That’s not what I pay my taxes for. What are you buying at Sainsburys? I bet you’re putting it on your expenses. You’re all the same. You’re all corrupt.
Then when you get to Parliament, you find that it’s hard (not impossible but not exactly encouraged) to get things done. You are just one of a large group. A group that is whipped to vote a certain way and whose choices are largely made by your party managers.
You don’t get a job description. You don’t get HR support. your future career choices are all made at the whim of your leadership. Want to apply the background knowledge you have built up on the environment? Sorry, your face fits better on the Health Select Committee. Want to apply your lifelong passion for the NHS? Sorry, we’d rather you took up the role of junior minister at the department for Transport. Maybe next time though…
I used to want to be an MP. I used to want to make a difference. Be part of the group of campaigners who make legislation. Be an important part of making a change to the world.
But I changed my mind. I wouldn’t do it now for all the tea in China. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lost none of my zeal to make a difference, none of my passion for the Labour Party and Labour politics.
But the thing is – I have a life. A life I like. A life where my motives aren’t constantly under question or attack. When I go to the Co-op, the only person questioning my choices is me.
The expenses scandal was dreadful. A real nadir in our public life. But the scandal did not create the atmosphere in which MPs are viewed as little more than criminals on the rob, it merely confirmed those oft-voiced suspicions.
We frequently lament that there aren’t enough “ordinary” people in politics. Frankly, I’m surprised there are as many as we currently do have. Most ordinary people, when faced with the kind of life I’ve outlined would do exactly as I have – turn away. You have to be pretty extraordinary to put yourself through all this. Pretty resilient to keep going.
We deserve the best representatives in the world. We deserve the right to scrutinise them and to criticise them when they do wrong.
But if we want the best representatives in the world, we have to be open to accepting that those who choose to do it probably have good motives. If we constantly treat anyone who wants to be an elected representative with suspicion, then only those who don’t care about being seen as suspicious will apply.
The time of deference to our elected representative has – quite rightly – passed. But if we allow it to continue to be replaced only with an atmosphere of febrile loathing then we will continue to put off far better candidates than me. So if you want MPs you don’t hate, stop assuming everyone who is or wants to be an MP is automatically hateful. Because this self-fulfilling notion is itself responsible for the denigration of our democracy. And that harms us all.