Leading article

The real problem with our MPs: they’re obsessed with the super-rich

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

Had the public been asked, before Monday morning, to identify two MPs who stood for honesty and decency, the names Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind would have been prominent among their replies. Both have served as foreign secretary, Straw also as home secretary and justice secretary. Neither seemed unduly driven by personal ambition, nor were they the worst offenders in the expenses scandal.

Both are probably right in saying that they have not broken any rules when discussing work opportunities with employees of a Chinese company who turned out to be undercover Daily Telegraph reporters. But it is astonishing that both seemed to believe this sufficient to let them off the hook. It is galling, too, if you are a voter in Kensington, to hear your MP boasting of how much time he has on his hands and claiming that no one pays him a salary — when, of course, he is receiving £67,000 a year from taxpayers to be a backbench MP. If Sir Malcolm had become more interested in helping Chinese companies do commerce than in serving his own constituents, why stand again as an MP?

When Sir Malcolm entered politics, the greatest threat to the Conservatives was socialism. Now, the biggest threat to Conservatism is inequality. It is hard to defend the system of free enterprise when it seems that the rising tide just lifts the yachts. It’s hard to talk about a recovery when the average salary is lower than it was eight years ago. And it’s hard to talk about fairness when young graduates who work hard find they still cannot afford a house at the age of 30. There is a feeling that a new divide is opening in Britain — and that the super-rich, especially those of certain age, have spun off into a world of their own.

Sir Malcolm’s excuse that he needed to bump up his salary because the ‘vast majority’ of professionals earn ‘far, far more’ than an MP’s pay of £67,000 was arrogant and wrong. He would be right to say that people want MPs to be paid at a level similar to solicitors or doctors. But the median income for doctors is £71,200 — which is worse than the remuneration of MPs when one factors in holidays and expenses. The median pay for solicitors is £41,200. It’s true that the salaries of the top 0.1 per cent are astronomical, but must the pay of our MPs follow suit?

Sir Malcolm is not alone among MPs in having a warped view of what people in other occupations earn. Every parliamentary scandal is followed by pleas from MPs to be paid more, on the grounds that if they were ‘properly’ paid they wouldn’t have to fiddle their expenses or tout their services to the Chinese (Toby Young makes the case on page 68). It is an argument which does not stand up to scrutiny. Does anyone really think that were MPs’ pay to be doubled to £134,000 a year many would not still be tempted to take up the offer of lobbyists and others offering Sir Malcolm’s half-day rate of £5,000 in return for access and influence?

Some MPs have acquired a sense of entitlement to high pay because their view of society is informed by the people with whom their lives bring them into contact. They are constantly lobbied by wealthy interests, while their parties have become increasingly reliant on rich donors for funding. As a result, they come to think of the rich as the norm. At the same time, the contact between MPs and their constituents has diminished as they spend more and more of their time in Westminster. This means that political policies become ever more concerned with the well-off, for or against. An unhealthy amount of time in this parliament has been devoted to discussion of issues which only affect a tiny proportion of society. Fiscal policy revolves around mansion taxes and tax avoidance by billionaires, transport policy is dominated by a hub airport for London and HS2 — facilities of disproportionate interest to wealthy business travellers. Even equality policies are concerned mostly with the wealthy. As Professor Alison Wolf recently observed, feminism has become fixated around issues — such as the number of women in the boardroom — which are only of interest to the top echelon of professional women. Cleaners don’t a get a look-in.

You do not have to be on the left to be concerned about this warping of public life. The justification for free markets is that they bring wealth to the whole of society, not a few at the top. A good number of the billionaires with whom our MPs now seem to spend increasing amounts of time, either being entertained, lobbied or touting their services, hail from countries where the conversion to capitalism has been very recent and hurried: namely Russia and China. These are political systems where the voice of the average earner is very faint indeed.

David Cameron was lucky that a senior Labour figure was caught out alongside Sir Malcolm. There is nothing more toxic to his chances of winning the next election than the idea that the Tories are the party of the rich. The Prime Minister needs to seize the initiative, get out of the bubble which MPs inhabit with our wealthiest residents, and focus on the interests of the majority, who will never be billionaires or even millionaires, but who do aspire one day, if they work hard, to be almost as well off as their MP.

The era of stable government is over

lpJoin us on 23 March for a Spectator discussion on whether the era of stable government is over with Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Jeremy Browne MP, Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew Goodwin. The event will be chaired by Andrew Neil. In association with Seven Investment Management. For tickets and further information click here.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Rik

    Billions in offshore tax havens while the serfs they “employ” are on zero hour contracts with wages topped up by in work benefits funded by the rest of us.
    Hammer .nail.hit

  • English_Independence_Movement

    Whilst simultaneously making the squeezed middle pay even more for the politicians socialist dreams, and Labour are the worst for applying the squeeze.

    • Simon

      Fuck off nazi

      • English_Independence_Movement

        I guess that means I’m spot on with my analysis.

        • Simon

          No it means I think far-right thugs should be sharing their bullshit in prison and nowhere else.

          • English_Independence_Movement

            Well then, I guess you can cut and paste something I’ve written to support your contention that I’m of the far right…. unless you have no supporting evidence.

          • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

            I’m not sure you are far right. But I am sure you are near to wrong.

  • richardamullens

    “Had the public been asked, before Monday morning, to identify two MPs who stood for honesty and decency, the names Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind would have been prominent among their replies.”

    What planet do you live on ?

    Jack Straw betrayed his roots in the NUS, he presided with TB over the farce that was the Iraq invasion with its dodgy dossier, he was complicit in the rendition and torture of a Libyan opposed to Gadaffi (including his wife and child) and he let Augusto Pinochet off the hook.

    Malcolm Rifkind was the useful idiot presiding over lawbreaking by the security services.

    The former should be in jail for crimes against humanity and the latter should have been pensioned off ages ago.

  • Jimwaddington

    The Spectator article is excellent – it goes a long way to explaining why Sir Malcolm Rifkind acted as he did. The incredible feature is that even when caught out he persisted as long as possible in clinging to everything that ‘suddenly’ became important again i.e. his Chairmanship of the Joint Intelligence Committee & his hitherto forgotten MP’s salary. One can only hope that all the time for ‘long walks’ and ‘reading’ will bring him belatedly back to earth.
    Thank heavens for a savvy media in the UK.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Straw decent and honest? Pull the other one.

  • Freddythreepwood

    ‘it’s hard to talk about fairness when young graduates who work hard find they still cannot afford a house at the age of 30’

    Have we manufactured a ‘crisis’ here. I was never a day unemployed in my life, I started work at 15, and the idea that I might be able to buy a house when I was 30 would have made me laugh out loud. My contemporaries the same. So what is going on? Why do youngsters today think it is their ‘right’ to be able to buy a house at 30? I know times have changed, but have they changed that much?

    • Mia Person

      You have a distorted image of today`s environment dear boy…for a start,kids are NOT able to start work at 15..or even 18 years old now…by law they are to stay in school or similar environment…I dare say you`re so far removed from the ordinary experiences of today`s youth that you haven`t a “Danny”.

      • PetaJ

        By law they can’t leave school at 16? Since when?

        • Yvonne & Barry Stuart-Hargreav

          It is 17 since last year

    • John

      They’re told it’s their right almost constantly by every political party, but aside from that, they invest tens of thousands in their own education and career, only to be spat into a country where you pretty much have to be a millionaire to afford a house. That was never the case in your day, old man – even the working class could cobble together enough to get a home and reap the rewards a quarter of a century later. Daft old c**t.

      • commenteer

        House ownership never went above seventy per cent or so, and that was for quite a brief period after the advent of council house sales.
        As for ‘being a millionaire’ to afford a house, what nonsense this is. In most areas of the country, housing is proportionately less expensive than in the 1980s, and monthly mortgage repayments staggeringly low; I am currently borrowing half a million at a cost of £1,200 a month, cheaper in real terms than borrowing £50,000 in the 1980s.
        I would agree that there is a difficulty in getting a mortgage just at the moment. Not as much of a difficulty as was the case for many in the 1970s, however, when single women weren’t eligible at all.
        The sour bitterness of your comment is misplaced and extremely offensive.

        • Yvonne & Barry Stuart-Hargreav

          Correct. We now have 22 million privately owned homes in the UK and only 9.5 million mortgages. Houses are cheaper than at any time since 2002.

      • Jambo25

        My son lives in south east England. He’s moving about 20 odd miles north to Northamptonshire and has just bought a house for about 200K. Not a mansion but a perfectly decent 3 bedroomed house with a couple of public rooms and a reasonably large garden in a decent area. My nephew has just bought a decent flat in Edinburgh for just under 200K. I think some people need a reality check.

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          5 Bed house for sale with two garages and third of an acre garden .7 miles from Bristol……..£419,000. Bargain.

          • Jambo25

            If I was moving to the South West I’d look at it myself but my laddie is moving to the East Midlands. Good luck with selling the house. Bristol’s one of my more favoured cities.

          • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

            I am not selling it. It is in my local paper. I merely point out that decent houses are affordable.

    • Freddythreepwood

      It is revealing that a perfectly reasonable post in a magazine such as this, which dared to ask a question or two about what appears to have become received wisdom, should attract abusive replies from people who cannot abide a view that might be contrary to their own. I am treated like someone who is obviously so senile I cannot have a clue what I am talking about, am referred to as ‘dear boy’, and ‘old man’, told I ‘haven’t a Danny’, whatever that means, and am called a ‘Daft old c**t.’ Also, I am treated to the arrant nonsense that you ‘pretty much have to be a millionaire to afford a house’ these days.
      Student Unions these days tend to bar from speaking anybody who disagrees with them. I suppose abuse on a forum such as this is an extension of that – ‘I don’t agree with you, so just shut-up’. Not that I ever will.

      • PetaJ

        Ignore them and keep plugging the point because you are right.

    • Tom M

      Not so far wrong Freddy. In the 60s if you wanted a mortgage you started saving with the Building Society and once you had a track record as a responsible saver (around two or three years) you might be considered for a mortgage (definitely not anything like 100% either).
      That mortgage would have been subject to a report on the building and usually insisted that any defects such as wiring, damp etc be put right before all the money was released.
      The houses bought on those first mortgages were not in the two-up two-down semis with nice kitchens and fitted carpets that seem to be the absolute minimum today. They were more in the one bedroomed flat with a shared toilet on the landing sort of thing.

  • Peter Stroud

    Hopefully both of these Rt Hon gentleman will suffer the dreadful penalty of not being elevated to membership of The Lords.

  • Simon Fay

    Just kill them all.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Kill who?

  • revkevblue

    The attitude and behaviour of these two, come as no surprise sadly, to the electorate of this country.
    It just confirms the betrayal we all feel that has been perpetuated against us, by the very pool of people that we, up to now, had to choose from to protect and nourish our Kingdom.
    Our Palace of Westminster, that is trumpeted around the world by the people that infest it, as the seat of democracy and the mother of all parliaments, is nothing but a chimera.
    It is in fact, a deep slow simmering cauldron, of graft and corruption, that despite their best endeavours to keep the contents below the surface, bubbles of that corruption continue with sickening regularity to burst and blow away the veils of illusion for the world to see its sordid contents.
    Roll on the month of May, it is time to scrubb clean our palace.

  • John

    Rifkind was very honest in the video. MPs no longer consider themselves employed by the state, they are self-employed billboards ready to be used by any billionaire.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      The £67,000 pa and the £125,000 in expenses is pin money to the self entitled.

  • PetaJ

    And where was the root of this obssession with the super-rich? Why, in New Labour of course. One only needs to look at how Tony Blair has exploited all the contacts made during his time in office to get exceedingly rich, and the fact that Gordon Brown tops the list of income outside his Mp’s salary speaks for itself. Let’s get some perspective on this – it is NOT just a Tory failing.

    • Yvonne & Barry Stuart-Hargreav

      No, just mainly a Tory failing.

      • PetaJ


        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          Please expalin how the Tories are not themain culprits of smug pocket lining idiocy.

          • PetaJ

            It would take far too long. But you could start with Tony Blair if you like.

  • Ganpati23

    Sir, as a lefty that just uses my monthly free article allowance to laugh at the beliefs of BTL Kippers, I’m shocked to say that I agree 100% with this article. I’d much rather read more of this than the identity politics drivel in the Graun – I only read it as my main paper for the BTL discussions. As I say, I consider myself a proper lefty (you know, ex-Trot at uni now mellowed into middle-aged democratic socialism*.) But what you suggest is what I would vote for. Economics first – to help business generate jobs and wealth and growth. But that growth to go to help reduce inequality and increase social mobility, not just giving tax cuts to hedge funds who donate to the Tories. (*This is what I mean by C21st socialism, not any clause 4 or any of that nonsense. Just the idea that the benefits of growth should be shared more fairly, that social mobility should be encouraged, inequality reduced, and that we shouldn’t have seen what has happened since 2010 – viz. that in real terms, the coalition policies have caused the bottom 50% have become poorer while the richer had have become richer, and the top 1% have gained far, far more than everyone else put combined, in a recession where we are all meant to be in it together.)

    The best way to help the poor is to have a sound economy which can generate wealth. That comes first. Then the question is how to share the benefits. QE, by buying bonds basically gave the money to the rentier class investors meaning that it just got invested in the stock market (which has risen hugely meaning those who helped cause the crash have been the most to benefit.) But when the crash hit crisis point, it was better to have QE than see the world economic system collapse.

    Vut even worse, while the hedge funds were among those who most caused the crash, their money means their political donations pay the piper, and after giving the Tories £25m in opposition, they were rewarded with a £140m tax cut. Since then, they’ve given another £25m to the Tories, allowing them to spend of youtube US-style attack ads (banned on UK tv), in the hope of getting the Tories back in so more of the wealth can go to them.

    This is what us sensible socialists want. A liberal, free market democracy which does it’s best to grow the economy. But we want an end to zero-hour contracts instead of more tax cuts for hedge funds. 300 civil servants investigate £70n of tax fraud, while 3,250 investigate £1.2bn of benefit fraud. We fee these should be reversed. Help should be given to SMEs, with red tape reduced, as they are less likely to have zero-hour contracts, instead of creeping around the big companies and tax avoiding multinationals who donate most to the Tories. The tax cuts to the hedge funds should go to the middle and lower-middle classes while the minimum wage should be raised (and the London living wage enforced.) Maybe some of the hedge fund tax cut money could be used for the state to subsidise a raised minimum wage for SMEs while tax-avoiding multinationals can be forced to cough up for this themselves.

    I don’t have all (even many of) the answers, but I agree with the tone of this article 100% (much to my surprise.) But this is all us lefties want (well those of us not totally brain dead.) Economic growth, but without it meaning that the poorest 50% get poorer, and the richest 1% get almost all the benefits (paid for electorally by giving a tiny increase to the sixth to with deciles in terms of wealth/income.)

    Could the author please join the Labour party, make them see this obvious sense, and lead us to victory where the economy grows as fast as possible but social mobility is raised, inequality is reduced, the poorest are helped as opposed to oppressed by the nasty party, and the govt. cares more about the lower and middle classes as opposed to their rich, hedge funds and tax-scammer mates.

    Spectator socialist sense – who’d’a thunk it?

    • ohforheavensake

      And seconded in every detail.

      • Ganpati23

        Thank you, Sir. It just seems strange that the Speccy seems to be calling for what I consider sensible C21st democratic socialism – the SDP without the incompetence, NuLab without the wars, Gordon Brown, PFI, the hypocrisy – when many people BTL (even the few that won’t have screamed Stalin at the first use of the word ‘socialist’) would disagree with everything I’ve said.

        Even though I want the economy put first, SMEs helped and red tape cut, tax cuts for the middle classes instead of hedge funds, stopping nasty party politics and raising revenue by swapping the numbers investigating tax fraud and benefit fraud (killing two birds with one stone), social mobility (giving the lower middle classes a chance against the Etonians, and helping the benefits for life mob get off their behinds), reducing inequality (so their middle class work rewards them as well as their investor shareholders) etc etc.

        I can understand the upper class and rentier rich readers disagreeing with me – I’m all right Jack and I want even more – but many are grammar school kids (or children of them like me) or hard working people who pay their taxes as opposed to getting Swiss bank accounts.

        If two parties are offering the same economic competence generating the same growth, with one saying most will go to the top 1% with the bottom half getting poorer, while the other says that the top 1% will get richer no faster than the rest, and that the poor and middle classes will get richer instead, why do they hate my socialist ideals?

  • little islander

    Those not obsessed need not apply.

  • Helen of Troy

    Two gods of male s-ksuality. Or not.

    One of my great friends (okay, it was something more than that) once raised the question: are we smart [as a species] because we’re s-xy, or s-xy because we’re smart?’ This was in the preeminent American science journal, I’ll have you know. However, I think he was asking the wrong question. It should be: given that we are smart and overs-xed, why are the men of the species so unprepossessing as a rule?

    • gerontius redux

      “How do they get anyone to have s-x with them?”
      Ah Helen. I constantly thank The Lord that so many women have such peculiar taste. Why only the other day…..

      • Helen of Troy

        They don’t have peculiar taste, darlin’. They have nothing else.

        • gerontius redux

          Nice gal that. I’m a sucker for a girl who can sing.
          I’ll play it later – it’s 4 in the morning here and even the cats have put out their “do not disturb” sign

          • Helen of Troy

            : ) You do that, honey. Check your e-mail.

  • thomasaikenhead

    The funniest thing is surely how stupid these two grasping buffoons are?

    Only two years after Lord Dannatt and his cronies were caught in an identical sting they both strolled into the very same trap?

    Malcolm Rifkind boasts his security and intelligence services links but really, really did not have the nous to even bother to check up on a bogus Chinese company that did not actually exist?

    What a pair of utter naive, incompetent fools?

  • Kasperlos

    Welcome to neo feudalism. Rifkind and Straw are merely the latest example of the self serving servant ‘betters’ doing their real job whilst getting taxpayer funds to not to their other job, viz. to serve the citizens of this realm. That would be too honest for their ilk. The country has spiraled out of control and seemingly the stage curtain on this farce of an era is hanging by a thread.

  • Ian Walker

    For future reference, the Venn diagram for the sets “Labour Politicians” and “Decent and Honest People” consists of two circles separated by approximately 100 light years

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      By their very nature Venn diagrams must involve overlapped circles. If they are separate they are not Venn diagrams.

      • Ian Walker

        True, but if I’d said “Euler Diagrams” then only a few readers would have understood what I meant. So I used a bit of artistic license in order to make a joke.

  • crazydave789

    if they moved parliament to wakefield then the bubble would be burst and MPs would live like kings on their 67k.

    I would be more than happy to do am MPs job, just not in london.