What is a fair and realistic salary?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind thinks it is “quite unrealistic” to think MPs can live on “simply £60,000” a year without looking for extra income. Really?
It all kicked off this week when Sir Malcolm and Jack Straw were caught in a “cash for access” scandal in Channel 4’s Dispatches programme called Politicians for Hire. Mr Straw has now suspended himself from the Labour Party and Sir Malcolm is what is politely known as “stepping down” from his role as chairman of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, and standing down as a Conservative MP.
It is the way in which Sir Malcolm tried to defend his comments on Dispatches that really landed him in hot water.
As thousands more Scots struggle with poverty after years of the Conservative-led government austerity agenda, Sir Malcolm complained: “£60,000 sounds a lot of money to anyone earning less, but the reality is that anyone from a professional or business background earns considerably more.
“I want to have the standard of living my professional background would normally entitle me to have.”
It was this comment that ended the former Foreign Secretary’s career.
Entitle. Entitlement. “Me, me, me” it screamed.
Clearly austerity hasn’t hit his household yet. He has proved, after a long career in politics, that he is out of touch with reality and that is the last thing a politician can be.
There are one million Scots in poverty. The Poverty Alliance has identified 167 different organisations providing emergency food to struggling Scots.
By any standards, the UK Government’s programme of austerity cuts has been manifestly unequal in terms of its disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in our society.
Is this a standard of living that the people living in poverty, relying on food banks and hit by welfare cuts are entitled to? These are conditions that have been placed directly on people by Sir Malcolm’s party and their Lib Dem bedfellows.
With views like Sir Malcolm’s it is no wonder the Tories don’t have a grip on the everyday reality of those struggling to earn a living. People are suffering under their governance.
Sir Malcolm doesn’t think his parliamentary salary of £67,060 is enough, but it is a long time since he was an MP in Scotland and clearly his tastes have suitably developed as the MP for Kensington.
According to the detailed 2014 ONS annual salaries report, the average wage of the estimated 21,563,000 people covered by the survey was £27,271. That’s not even half an MP’s salary.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind represents the views of the few, not the many. And that leads us onto a much bigger issue.
The rapid rise of inequality is a real threat to our society and it is attitudes like Sir Malcolm’s that are perpetuating the problem. Politicians should be fighting for fair wages for all, not pay rises for themselves.
Oxfam has warned that the combined wealth of the richest 1% will overtake that of the other 99% of people next year unless the current trend of rising inequality is checked.
Daniel Dorling wrote in his landmark polemic, Inequality and the 1%, that inequality in the UK is increasing and that more and more people are being driven towards the poverty line.
The mere accident of being born outside the 1% will have a dramatic impact on the rest of your life: it will reduce your life expectancy, as well as educational and work prospects, and affect your mental health.
The numbers are stark. Since 1980 the share of total income received by the top 1% of British earners has almost doubled, to about 13% in 2011, reversing a three-decades-long trend towards greater equality. This was easy to turn a blind eye to in prosperous times, when an average wage bought a bit more every year and what it would not pay for could easily be had on credit. In the past six years, however, the purchasing power of the average UK wage has fallen by about one-tenth.
I actually think being a politician is a tough job. It can be very rewarding but thankless at times, particularly when events like this exacerbate the low esteem in which the Westminster political establishment is held.
Sir Malcolm may have said he has lots of free time as an MP, but most of the politicians I know are in parliament the majority of the working week and the constituency the rest. Not to mention out campaigning after work and at the weekend, and attending party branch meetings, local events and the endless trail of media requests and Sunday politics programmes.
Being a politician is a full on and full time job: no doubt this is something Mr Rifkind now wishes he hadn’t forgotten.
But, more importantly, a politician’s job is to represent the interests of everyone in society.
Five years have passed since the last cash for access scandal and nothing has changed. The cosy Westminster establishment which represents the interests of the few desperately needs a root and branch review and a shake-up.
Perhaps that will be the legacy of the SNP MPs set to descend on Westminster, if they can convince voters to send enough of them to London in May.