Over the past few weeks, the news has been dominated by headlines about MPs who abuse the parliamentary rules that allow them to have second jobs. This is a misleading, generalised account of a specific and exceptional problem. The scandal is the direct result of Conservative ideology, one that has a fundamentally contemptuous opinion of public service and a tradition of leveraging political contacts to feather nests.
In the past 18 months, 148 MPs spent some time on a second job, according to the register of members’ interests. Out of this number 114 of them were Conservatives, whose activities make up 87% of the income from those second jobs. Most of that income is from roles in the private sector; accountancy, investment banking, energy, pharmaceuticals and independent legal work. Such is the time dedicated to these roles, and the pay netted from them, that it could be argued that being a Tory MP is itself the second job; or in some instances, the third or fourth.
This is not just an unfortunately timed snapshot that happens to have caught out the party with six times more MPs in second jobs than the opposition. Nor is it a party temporarily out of control under the chaotic stewardship of its prime minister, Boris Johnson, a man whose popularity and familiarity among the British public is a result of his own various second jobs in the media as opposed to any serious political performance in office.
To its credit, the Labour party took efforts to tackle the issue back in 2019. An entire pledge to ban second jobs was made in the party’s manifesto, and its then leader, Jeremy Corybn, expressly blocked any shadow cabinet members from second jobs, with limited exemptions to maintain professional registrations such as nursing. It is baffling that something identified and stigmatised, and for which a technical solution has already been proposed, should ever become a question about what to do about the risks of a “part-time parliament”.
This seems like a pretty straightforward question about values, more than it is about parliamentary rules or how we can motivate MPs not to take second jobs. It’s unsurprising in a party that lauds aspiration that its MPs would be concerned about the “change in lifestyle” – presumably one that includes private school fees – if their income were to fall.
Values are also drawn from our backgrounds. The complaints from some about how difficult life is on a mere £81,932 a year plus benefits sound out of touch to you and me, but very much in touch with their peers and family networks. Forty-one per cent of Conservative MPs went to independent schools, as opposed to 14% of Labour MPs (and 7% of the population as a whole). The newer intake of MPs, younger and from more working-class areas, are underrepresented in the second-jobs market, which is dominated by older men, and where the highest earners were all former cabinet ministers.
For many Conservative MPs, extraparliamentary activities are simply factored in when choosing to go into politics, as these cushion the income they lose by not working in the private sector. Second jobs are also an insurance policy. By keeping one foot in the door, MPs are able to build or maintain connections, in the hope that they will embrace them when their tour in politics is done. When asked about his £150,000-a-year second job with JP Morgan, Sajid Javid said: “It’s good to have experience that is not all about politics.” The follow-up question to that statement is, of course: good for who?
Not making these connections – between the type of people who become Conservative MPs, their political beliefs and their desire for and need of private incomes – situates the problem in a general political system of naughty MPs. One in which MPs will either inevitably stick their hands in the honeypot or drop out of politics altogether. And so we look for “realistic” solutions to these “complicated” situations, including suggestions that we pay MPs more so they aren’t forced to look elsewhere for income to meet their lifestyle needs. We end up solving for the sin, rather than condemning it. We resign ourselves to the flawed nature of a political class that is in fact a conservative class.
The second-jobs blight is the natural outcome of a conservative philosophy towards political office – a place from which to wield power for the benefit of yourself and your connections, rather than to serve. The solution, however, is simple: restate what being an MP is all about – serving your constituents – and ban anything that gets in the way of this.