In the early nineteenth century revolution washed across Europe. The British political classes were terrified an insurrectionary fervour would come to the United Kingdom: the Irish, frustrated with the way they were treated by the parliament in Westminster, continued to cause problems while many in England, Scotland, and Wales were frustrated by the lack of change.
Buoyed by this acquiescence some thought to ask for more. The Chartist movement was born, and with it six demands. A vote for every man aged 21 or older, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime. Secret ballots. No need for members of parliament to own land. Salaries for MPs. Constituencies of equal population. Annual elections.
Chartism failed spectacularly at the time, but within 80 years five of those six demands had been met — annual elections are the only outstanding issue. One of those five demands, payment of MPs, continues to be a controversial topic.
The need for payment
By the end of the nineteenth century the industrial cities did see political revolution. Far quieter but no less disruptive than those that had already taken place on the continent the revolution saw working-class people standing for parliament. This radical notion, promoted by Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party, saw miners and unionists elected to stand up for workers’ rights.
But these new Labour MPs had a problem: if they had to give up their jobs to become members of parliament — and who could be a Lancashire miner if you had to be in London every day of the week — how were they to earn a living? So, in 1911, after exerting much pressure on the Liberal government, and after six earlier bills had failed to pass, the Labour party got what it needed: MPs were given a salary.
Although the then chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George, went to pains to point out it was an allowance, not a salary, payment started at £400 a year (about £35,000 in today’s money). Apart from one dip in 1931, to £360, the salary — sorry, allowance — increased at irregular intervals. In 1963 the government implemented the recommendations of an independent committee and increased the basic salary from £1,750 to £3,250 (£49,000 today), and since 1971 an independent review board has issued reports (and recommendations for increases) on members’ pay fairly regularly.
I was interested in seeing how salaries have changed over time, both in real terms and adjusted for inflation. I found the details of historic salaries in a PDF produced by the House of Commons Information Office, found out how to calculate historical inflation from data provided by the National Statistics Office, and came up with the chart below: MPs salaries from 1911–2008.
What does the chart tell us?
Just look at the change in from the mid-1960s onwards. Before then the allowance spent most of its time below what is an average salary today, so those frequent reviews have clearly made a difference. Some might say these independent reviews gave MPs the freedom to increase their salary without fear of recrimination; others would say MPs were finally allowed a salary worthy of their work. Either way, it’s a very pronounced change.
At the other end of the scale the decrease MPs voted for in 1931 made little difference to their already dipping salary (it had dropped to a third of its original value in real terms) but it must certainly have been very politically expedient move while the world was struggling with the Great Depression.
Notice that large jump in the mid-1990s? In July 1996 the Review Body on Senior Salaries (SSRB) recommended MPs should be paid £43,000 a year, a more than 26 per cent increase. The government, surely nervous of how the electorate would see such an increase, proposed instead an increase of a meagre three per cent. MPs were having none of it, rejecting the government’s proposal and accepting the SSRB’s 26 per cent. I wonder how many people considered that an issue in the election nine months later?
Of course, the elephant in the room is MPs’ expenses. While in 2008 an MP’s salary was £63,291 they could claim lots and lots in expenses. Eric Joyce, MP for Falkirk and highest claimant, requested £187,334 to cover travel, staffing costs, stationary, and the like. But there’s been enough written about that that I don’t need to.
The raw data
If you’re a nerd like me and love to play with data you’ll be interested in the the raw figures for the chart above. Here they are. Feel free to use them — although if you do a link back would be just lovely.
|Year||Real salary||Inflation-adjusted salary||Inflation multiplier|