In the light of the recent selection of Sarah Wollaston, a local GP, by an open primary in Totnes, a debate has re-emerged that I feel is crucial to the medium-term direction of our Parliament and political system more broadly. The main reason people seemed to have selected her was that she was not a “career politician”. Whilst I agree that the open primary system is a brilliant way of encouraging greater participation in politics, and accept the need for candidates who constituents feel are in tune with local issues, the blanket idea that it is better if a prospective MP has no previous political experience seems questionable. The implicit assumption by some parts of the press is seemingly that anyone previously involved in politics has been tarnished and corrupted by the system, is on the make, and is not to be trusted, whereas anyone entering it afresh is incorruptible.
Of course the absurd level of expenses claims occurred because of greed, but also because the system encouraged them. Because MPs assumed that raising their salaries would be damaging to the public’s perception of them, they compensated with an expenses culture. In my opinion, we therefore need to decide whether we want full time MPs, who dedicate their time to the political process, or people who retain another job, albeit on a part time basis. The former might well be preferable, providing they have some life experience outside of conventional politics.
The basic salary for MPs now is £64,766, but this has been made up with benefits, allowances and the system, meaning that each MP effectively costs the taxpayer £247,000 a year. I would therefore replace all of this with an agreed salary (staff paid for outside of this), with a reduced salary plus payment for renting an apartment in London, for those who live too far from Westminster. This would result in more productive MPs, with a transparent and competitive system of renumeration, and at a lower net cost to the taxpayer.