The Politics of Greed

I note a number of stories about politicians again in the media over the past few weeks. The first was based around whether it was right that they were given a 10 per cent pay rise, the other notable one was the headlines about our Prime Minister being off on his ‘jollies’.

The debate over the pay rise quickly moved away from the point. The difficulty in granting such a pay rise at a period when public sector pay rises have been largely frozen should have been the main discussion point. However, the talk quickly descended into an argument about MPs being lazy, greedy and corrupt. A theme the media love to take up even though the evidence is barely there to support it. A it’s simplest level, the vast majority of MPs could hold down senior executive roles in FTSE companies. The latest pay rise will put them roughly  at the bottom of this pay range. In short there are easier ways for talented people to make money.

David Cameron
Is Cameron no longer allowed on holiday?
(Image © BisGovUK 2013)

To take the laziness argument first. MPs work hard. I would love to know what the man in the street who states otherwise is comparing it to. Long hours, extreme constant scrutiny and high stress doesn’t strike me as an easy life. Attending Westminster and working for the party alongside the constituency business means seriously long hours accompanied by the logistical difficulties of high degree of travel. A Hansard study of new MPs conducted in 2011 highlighted the disparity between needing to spend the majority of time on constituency business with the fact that around 65 per cent of time is spent in Westminster. The study picked up on an average 69 hour working week. This compares for instance to an average of 57 for a secondary school Head-teacher  The reality though for both these roles is that one is permanently working. Always on call, always available. What any of the detractors fail to grasp, sitting in their 9 to 5 roles is that there is no turn off point. One hears comments on long holidays (from Westminster) which ignore the point that that is generally focused constituency time rather than time spent in the sun. 

The holiday comment is also worth pursuing in more detail. Pictures of David Cameron covered  the tabloid press last week. The Mail reported that he “relaxed in a restaurant” and quoted a Labour MP who said “Britain Deserved More”. Meaning what? They deserve someone who doesn’t take a holiday? Is that now the view of the opposition? That we are more effective without holidays? That’s moving quite a long way from protecting workers. I’m guessing that that isn’t really the view of Labour, guessing in fact it’s not really the view of the media either and that holidays are still allowed for the ‘hard working family’ and guessing that its just an easy bandwagon topic to roll out in the quiet summer months. It also ignores the fact that people who operate at this sort of level don’t really get holidays as the rest of us know them. Yes, they get away to the sun, even spend time having a meal in a restaurant, being romantically  photographed by paparazzi. But they don’t stop, always on call or in Cameron’s case, constantly being briefed and updated on the latest situations. Different location doesn’t mean he stops working.

Then the corrupt piece. There is an argument that says that the MP should be beyond reproach. That they should be perfect in every aspect of their professional and personal lives. This doesn’t merely even apply to the time they serve in parliament but to anything they may have done in their youth. Of course a criticism of MPs is that they are distant from reality, that they don’t reflect the lives of their constituents. These, I am guessing, are people who never make mistakes, never have affairs and are similarly beyond reproach? You really can’t have it both ways. In the Hansard study, the vast majority of canvassed MPs said the role was having a detrimental effect on their private lives. Worth noting that any role that has such a significant effect on private lives, especially combined with late hours and working away from home is likely to create am environment where MPs form extra marital relationships to help them cope or to escape.  One of the areas most frowned on (and sensationally reported on) of course by our impeccably well behaved media. 

The recent expenses crisis of course highlighted some of the worst practices of the MPs. Although interestingly the reality was that only very few actually broke rules. It highlighted antiquated rules, established practices and quite rightly prompted a remodelling of the expenses procedures. Those that did have been rightfully prosecuted and most have stepped down. They represent a tiny proportion of the whole. Probably one that is in line with (or even less than) a comparable sample of expense fraud in any corporate.  

But it created a view that the tabloid media have been keen to further. The view that politicians do it for the easy life, that they do it for the money. Neither bears out in reality. Long hours, always on duty.  The constant threat of exposure in the media for the slightest mistake all with low comparative renumeration. That’s not an easy life, it’s certainly not the way to make the most money.

Most MPs enter politics with the aim to make things better. To fight for principles that they firmly believe in. To make their country a better place. In my dealings with politicians, that never changes. Like anyone in any organisation, corporate or public, they get weighed down by the internal politics, the bureaucracy and the sheer effort involved in actually achieving what should be small tasks. But my experience is that that desire to do ones best always remains. 

It’s a tough job, one I would certainly never want to do. It isn’t by any means an easy life, there are better ways of making money. It also has a unique characteristic in that in theory, if you find enough people who think you would do a better job, you could do it. Mind you, that’s quite a lot of effort. Maybe it’s easier to go on holiday.

BBC report on Hansard study
Guardian comparison between teachers and MPs working hours 
Best Paid Jobs League Table  

Complain about the Community or Change it?

I’ve heard lots of comment, tweet and news reports this week from people telling others what they need to do to to solve ‘the crisis’ that we find ourselves in after the rioting. I’ve seen many tweets comparing rioters to bankers or even to MPs, citing lack of discipline in schools or lack of community schemes as the problem.

There’s also been commentary about how this ‘underclass’ don’t want to help themselves – that the benefit culture expect everything to be handed to them.   At the end of the day, it’s pretty easy to sit around and complain and suggest that the problem is someone else’s to sort out. But this attitude is not limited to the rioters. The general population are just as happy to see it as someone else’s problem. It’s easy to blame schools, to blame lack of community effort or even MPs for being corrupt. 

I just wonder how many people who criticise the discipline in schools or teachers for not instilling a sense of respect into these kids have bothered to look into helping out at their local school. Most schools have vacancies for Governors. A role which puts your right at the heart of the school, making strategic decisions on behaviour policies and discipline. You don’t even have to be a parent – in fact it’s often easier to make subjective decisions if you are not.If you don’t want to make that sort of sacrifice, schools often want help reading with kids or getting involved in the fundraising for the school. 

I wonder how many people who still bleat on about MPs being corrupt and the expenses crisis actually bothered to vote. Each one of us had a chance to look at the person representing us and decide where to place our cross. How many peopel actually bothered to get out there, pound the streets and campaign. We all had a chance to remove anyone from parliament that we wanted but few got involved. In the end, it was easier to leave it to others and complain. 

I wonder how many people who say we need more youth projects, more funding for initiatives in the community have ever volunteered at one. How many have  even regularly put their hands in the pockets to help local initiatives. At the end of the day, its much easier to shoot from the sidelines

One of the most positive things that the past few days has been the clean up campaigns which have shown  that people are actually keen to support their community. Maybe that is the launchpad for others to get involved. Rather than blaming others and saying what’s wrong with the country, go out and change it for yourself.