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Artillery Row

Our attitude towards MPs is inconsistent

We hate career politicians, but we want politicians to focus entirely on their career

When Nigel Farage announced last week that he was entering the general election campaign and standing for Parliament in Clacton, he deployed his full armoury of populist tropes. A reliable projectile was launched when he blamed much of Britain’s current plight on being “led by a career political class”.

This is a long-standing complaint. Voters perceive an isolated class of professional politicians who spend their early careers working for parties, think tanks or pressure groups before being elected to Westminster, and who speak a distinct and disjointed language of their own. Because they seem so distant, we lose trust in them to understand and represent us.

There is an element of truth, though perhaps less than we think: “career politicians” probably represent maybe a fifth of MPs. There is also a piquant irony in this charge being made by Farage, who has existed almost exclusively in the public arena since he was elected to the European Parliament 25 years ago, longer than his vaunted City career. But perception is important, and we say we do not like it.

What do we want instead? Politicians who are “in touch”, certainly, but it is also common to hear a desire for MPs who have “run things”, who have had “real jobs” and who understand how “the real world works”. We have a special fondness for those with a “hinterland”, that word first used by Edna Healey to describe a range of interests and hobbies enjoyed away from the heat of political battle.

That hinterland can come in a variety of forms. Rory Stewart attracted respect for his adventures in central Asia, his marathon walk across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal and his elegantly written travelogues. Stella Creasy has stepped outside politics to connect with voters through her devotion to 1990s indie music, especially Leeds guitar band The Wedding Present. Nadine Dorries may not have won over literary critics but she established financial independence from her role as an MP by producing 16 novels (so far). Boris Johnson’s popularity leaned in no small part on his journalism, his media ubiquity and his volumes of “popular history”.

As a collective, however, we, “the electorate”, are perfectly capable of making contradictory and irreconcilable demands. At the same time as we swoon over hinterland and a connection with the real world, we expect MPs to be at Westminster all the time, and to be visible. We shake our heads when we see the chamber of the House of Commons empty and we curl our lips at the long “holidays” that MPs award themselves.

(This in particular is nonsense. When the House of Commons is not sitting, MPs are mostly to be found in their constituencies, dealing with an inescapable backlog of correspondence, holding surgeries, campaigning door-to-door and investigating local amenities. The House sits for more days than most comparable legislatures.)

… we want our elected representatives to arrive at Westminster virtually as political ingenués … but then to devote themselves to nothing but that

More than that, we expect MPs to treat their role as a job, and in many ways their only job: we create a notion that it is like any other employment, in which they start every weekday morning, work through the day and finish in the evenings. Increasingly — indeed, overwhelmingly — we reject the notion of them having any kind of “outside interests”, which, in most cases, we assume can only be for the purposes of self-enrichment. It is almost as if we want our elected representatives to arrive at Westminster virtually as political ingenués, unsullied by grubby party hackery, but then to devote themselves to nothing but that.

We simply can’t have everything. Firstly, being a Member of Parliament is not, in any meaningful sense, a “job”. There are no professional standards or qualifications, no formal selection process save popular election, no set working hours, no specific duties and in theory no security of tenure. You cannot even resign, thanks to a resolution of the House of 2 March 1624 “that a man, after he is duly chosen, cannot relinquish”.

The direction of travel seems to be towards the virtual prohibition of outside interests. It was only in 1911 that MPs were awarded a salary at all, initially of £400 a year. Today a backbencher is paid £91,346, around two and a half times the national average income but less than the starting salary for the highest-flying graduate entrants in some legal and financial jobs. There can certainly be no argument that MPs have to look elsewhere to make ends meet.

But they will, inexorably, become an inward-looking order of professional politicians. Hinterlands need to be maintained: doctors, nurses, lawyers and teachers need to maintain continuing professional development, academics and specialists need to stay in touch with cutting-edge research, leaders from business, industry and finance need to spend time in their sectors and make sure their experience is up-to-date. Yet we, a suspicious, censorious, puritanical public, will not allow a working culture which can sustain that.

In any question of policy, broadly speaking, you can allow for the best or legislate against the worst. The latter will rarely disappoint you but it will never inspire. Of course we need standards and regulations to guard against conflicts of interest and paid advocacy — many are already in place — but our public life would be so much more varied, better informed, and more reflective of the areas on which Parliament legislates, if we saw MPs as representatives who brought their experience and expertise to bear, rather than delegates who imposed their parties’ chosen lines. Yes, things would go wrong and there would be rule-breakers, but if we are not willing to take that risk now, when our political institutions look almost exhausted and out of ideas, when will we?

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