In defence of MP “second jobs”

·4 min read
Former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock
Former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock

The idea of banning MPs from having “second jobs” is in the news again, thanks to a sting orchestrated by the anti-Brexit group Led by Donkeys. Outcry has erupted in response to reports that senior ministers Matt Hancock and Kwasi Kwarteng both told a non-existent firm in South Korea their regular rate for consultancy would be £10,000.

But the whole notion of “second jobs” is based upon a misconception. Being an MP is not a job at all, let alone a “first job”.

One could imagine a form of democracy in which being a member of the legislature was a job. Perhaps, for example, Members of Parliament would have the job of conducting polls in their constituencies to determine voter preferences over upcoming legislation, then vote accordingly as local delegates. But that is not our model of democracy.

Instead, parish and district councillors, county councillors and MPs are all based on the same concept. Ordinary citizens volunteer to give up some of their time to act as representatives of each local area. They work out how to vote on the measures brought forward by their rank of government according to their own methods – some balance of instinctive reaction, asking for their constituents’ views, personal reading and taking the guidance of their party’s whip. They don’t have to vote at all, or even turn up. Then at the end of their term of office their constituents get to evaluate their performance, and decide whether they want to be represented by that individual again.

Parish and district councillors, county councillors and MPs are not employees. They have no sick pay, no holiday pay, no notice period before termination. There are no employment terms, employment contracts or employment tasks. These are not jobs. They are fundamentally volunteer activities, done by public-spirited people to represent their fellow citizens and make a contribution to their local or national areas. Being an MP is not a job. It is an office.

Historically there was no payment associated with these voluntary activities. But the lack of any payment meant that it was infeasible for many people to undertake them. An MP, for example, has to travel to London to vote and the combination of the geographic and time commitments involved mean that people volunteering to be MPs cannot, as a practical matter, do full-time jobs such as mining or farming at the same time as being an MP.

So, to widen the opportunity for ordinary people from working-class backgrounds to participate, in nineteenth century left-wing activists campaigned for MPs to receive an honorarium (this was a key demand of the Chartist movement). This campaign was finally successful in 1911 and since then MPs have received a payment allowing those without either the opportunity to work in London at the same time as being an MP, independent means or philanthropic supporters to serve as MPs. But the introduction of payments did no suddenly make being an MP a job.

An MP is supposed to be an ordinary citizen. Ideally such a person should have a job, family, friends, hobbies, religious convictions and so on like the rest of us. Their role is to represent. There are no specific technical requirements to the task. Some people imagine an MP’s job is to take up constituent complaints or problems, like a kind of Citizens Advice official. But whilst MPs do do such things that is not really their job any more than any other concerned citizen’s. Much “constituency business” is matters properly dealt with by district or county councils, anyway – like housing concerns – or matters for various ombudsmen.

MPs are there to hold government officials to account and to scrutinise legislation, representing the rest of us. They can do that better if they have jobs of their own, like the rest of us, not worse.

And of course those objecting to “second jobs” don’t mean they object to MPs working as doctors, hosting radio and TV shows, writing books, working as government ministers (a completely separate and additional set of tasks from being an MP), serving as military reservists, doing podcasts or writing newspaper articles. Yet none of these things is any more relevant to being an MP than matters that aid MPs in developing insights into legislation or the needs of business, such as working as a lawyer or economist, or doing consultancy for international firms. Policy is not solely a matter of media profile.

Being an MP is not a job, but even if it were a job then the ideal MP would be a “part-time” MP. Furthermore, even if you disagree with that, then why should I, or others who agree with me, be forbidden from voting for what we consider an ideal MP if such a part-time MP is what we want? It should be for constituents to decide what we want our MPs to do, not rules or laws based on some hobbled idea of an MP as a glorified, full-time social worker.