Monday, 3 June 2013

Peers Accepting Money from Lobby Groups (Really Journos Wearing Groucho Marx Glasses and Mustaches). Clearly a Case of Underpaid Parliamentarians

Here's my first post. I hope you like it. The topic of the first post has exercised me somewhat over the past 24 hours or so, since starting this blog. I know that is irrational. My thoughts, over which I have ruminated for much of the past 24 hours, have gone as follows: "the first post will set the tone for the blog; what you write there will indicate to your readership the sort of blog they can expect. It's important to get it right, not just what you write but also the topic on which you choose to write." They were my thoughts. While, on the other hand, here is reality: very few people will read this and even fewer will read it and form a view as to whether or not to on-principle continue to read posts on this blog or to avoid it. 

So, in short, the first post has little practical significance over and above any other post I might make in the future. But I felt the need to insert the word "practical" there. Hmmmm. Alright then, the first post has a symbolic significance for me... ...boring. 

Okay, well, yesterday (02/06/2013) I watched the Sunday Politics on BBC1, presented by Andrew Neil. The main topic of conversation was peers taking cash from 'lobby groups'/journalists. Of course, the peers in question, while caught on camera, contest this interpretation of the words and images. Time will tell. What grabbed my attention, and had me wondering about the view from the hutch, was what one of Neil's panel of political pundits said. Isabel Oakeshott contributed to the discussion by suggesting that the answer was a substantial increase in the salaries of parliamentarians. She conceded that this was not likely to be a popular view with the public, but, the implication was, it was the right view. What do the oiks know?! The idea that Oakeshott proposed (though it is not hers, many have proposed it before) is that if we pay them a 'decent' salary, they won't need to take money from lobby groups (or fiddle/play fast-and-loose with/defraud the expenses system). It's an interesting, though for most of us a rather counter-intuitive, line of argument. It was also rolled out by some pundits in the wake of the expenses scandal.  

Let us consider the most obvious reasons why it might be an unpopular view with the public. The current basic salary for a Westminster MP is £66,396.00. The mean average UK wage in the year up to April 2012 was, according to the Office of National Statistics, £26,500.00. Hmmm. Furthermore, very few of those people with earnings at or close to the national average will have any access to work-related expenses. And we could go on in this vein. We could talk of the job prospects for parliamentarians when they leave parliament (good and high-paid, if you didn't already know). We could talk of the job prospects of school leavers and graduates (poor). We could talk about the current high unemployment levels, which remain high owing to lack of government investment in the economy. We could talk about how MPs use "austerity" to justify freezing salaries and raiding the pensions of other public sector workers, while claiming we are all "in this together". We could... go on. 

However, my thought is that this isn't really, at root, the source of most people's objection to the suggestion to which Isabel Oakeshott gave voice yesterday. The problem is that there is something problematic and inconsistent going on in the reasoning, and that can be summed up by the short 'tweet' I dispatched on hearing Oakeshott's suggestion:

Isabel Oakeshott's answer to MPs and Peers taking money from lobbyists? Pay them more! Odd how this isn't the answer to benefit fraud.

You see, I don't recall hearing anyone arguing that the answer to benefit fraud is to pay benefits at a rate which will obviate the need for fraud. Or,and this might be a better analogy, I don't recall these same pundits arguing that if there is a problem with benefit fraud then the problem might have its roots in low wages (i.e. wages on which it is not possible to live) and high rents (private landlord profits). If Isabel Oakeshott believes that legislating to introduce a living wage and rent caps is the first response one should propose to the suggestion of a problem of benefit fraud (or just to a rising national benefit bill) then I would like her to say so.  No, the pundits that propose this for parliamentarians do not apply the same rules to benefit fraud. 

You see, Caroline Lucas (the Green Party MP for Brighton and Hove) and Owen Jones (the political pundit) have both argued that the whole argument about the national benefit bill and benefit fraud is misguided, and divisively so, in ignoring the problem of such things as high private rents and low wages (wages that need topping up by benefits so that people can live on them). However, neither proposed that benefit fraud should be addressed by raising wages and lowering rents. Rather, their point was that if, as the government claimed, the problem in need of addressing was the national benefits bill, fraud was not the real problem: low wages and high rents were. If they or anyone had suggested that the answer to people defrauding the benefits system is to make more money available to those same people, so that they no longer have to resort to fraud, they would have been pounced on by mainstream MPs and commentators as providing justification for criminality. See the difference? The inconsistencies abound, hereabouts, don't they?

So, there appears to be a lack of consistency on the part of the mainstream pundits, which in turn seems to me to have its roots in assumptions, maybe unacknowledged or subconscious, about the different motives of people from different class backgrounds. Maybe this is why 'the people' (e.g. not the vast majority of politicians and not the vast majority of political pundits) find Isabel Oakeshott's suggestion objectionable. The objection to Oakeshott's suggestion is not based in the politics of envy: i.e. we don't want those already earning more than us to earn even more than us. No, it is not that. It is, rather, founded in the expectation that our society should be consistent in the way it deals with groups from different social classes. Because, it can seem that the thought operative in the background here is that taking money to which you have no right is something that is forced on to our underpaid parliamentarians and we need to legislate to increase their wages so we can save them from the indignity of having to reluctantly commit (alleged) fraud. It is at worst a noble failing or an unfortunate, but necessary, grubby business for this group (parliamentarians who take money from lobby groups or who fiddle expenses) but it is, at best, a sign of fecklessness for another (those who claim benefits to which they are not entitled).

I wrote, above, that for most of us Oakeshott's argument was counter-intuitive. It is so, I suggest, because our intuitions about how we respond to people taking money that they should not take (the rules we apply in such cases) do not seem to apply here, according to Oakeshott and others. Our intuitions are based in a quite reasonable expectation that rules are applied consistently, unless we are provided with sound reasons for an exception. There is here on show no consistency and no reason proposed for its absence. This is class prejudice and it's mainstream.

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