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It’s no sacrifice

The recent scandal over MPs' expenses and second jobs only seems to have confirmed the suspicion that 'they're all at it'. But when Dave Nellist was elected as Labour MP for Coventry South East he made a point of only taking the wage of an average worker. Now a Coventry city councillor and leading member of the Socialist Party, he spoke to {Red Pepper} about his experience in Westminster

August 23, 2009
6 min read

You took the average worker’s wage as an MP – how much would that have been, roughly, in today’s terms?

It was an average skilled worker’s wage, which was always less than half an MP’s salary. For example, in 1989 MPs received £24,107 and the average skilled worker’s wage that year, calculated from figures from the engineering union’s Coventry district office, was £11,180 – so that was 46 per cent.

An MP today is on £64,766 – 46 per cent of that would be £29,792. But the amount I would take today if re-elected would depend not on a percentage, but the actual average wages received by the people I represented.

What were your personal circumstances at the time? Were you married? Did you have kids? Were you conscious of making sacrifices?

My wife Jane and I were married in August 1984, during the miners’ strike. We held a social as part of the wedding celebration and charged an entry fee, which raised quite a bit for the local miners’ support fund!

For the first year we were married Jane still had her job in a department store in Sutton Coldfield. But a year later the first of our three children arrived and for the rest of my time as an MP we only had the one worker’s wage for myself, Jane and our family to live on.

I’d been unemployed before being elected in 1983, so living on a skilled worker’s wage was not a ‘sacrifice’. We had a holiday every year in Scotland or Wales, and we could manage a night out for a meal or to the theatre or the cinema in exactly the same way as any other couple with young children could. But we felt the same pressures with bills and other living expenses as the people I represented.

So I would say taking the ‘worker’s wage’ wasn’t so much making a sacrifice. If I had taken the full MP’s wage we would have been insulated against those day-to-day problems and the pressures that most people in Coventry felt.

How did you divide your time between your constituency and Westminster?

Did you need to keep up two houses? Did you take much in the way of expenses above and beyond your ‘worker’s wage’?

I usually dealt with constituency business on Monday morning, went to London Monday lunchtime, tried to come back Tuesday evening (late), more constituency business/meetings on Wednesday morning, then back to London at lunchtime, coming back to Coventry late Thursday night – unless there was any pressing business on Friday. Friday and the weekend would be spent on casework/meetings in the constituency or addressing public meetings elsewhere.

Although I managed to have a voting record usually in the top ten of Labour MPs, I addressed about 1,500 meetings over the nine years I was an MP.

In the 1980s parliament often sat late into the night (or even through the night), so I rented a furnished flat in London. No moat or oak beams! Nor any claims for food!

I claimed the full ‘office costs’ allowance to employ research and secretarial assistance in the Commons and in the constituency. I also rented an office in Coventry to work from. I was receiving on average 200 letters a week. We had wards with 50 per cent male unemployment, and a huge amount of constituency casework. None of the office costs money came to me personally – it was used to pay wages, and for rent and equipment.

What did you think of your fellow MPs? Were they clearly ‘on the take’ in your day? Did having a comfortable salary make them out of touch?

A number of MPs had outside jobs – mainly, in those days, Tory MPs with directorships. One I remember, Geoffrey Rippon, who had been a minister in previous Tory governments, was the King of Company Directors. When I was there he was an MP, a QC, and the chairman or director of four dozen different companies. He had 50 jobs!

It always seemed to me to be the real reason why parliament sat in the afternoon and evening, so Tory MPs could make their real money in the mornings – or as Geoffrey Rippon apparently put it, ‘to earn a crust and go on drinking decent claret’. These days, of course, it’s ex-Labour ministers who are earning tens of thousands of pounds a year moonlighting. In my book it’s an even bigger crime than playing the expenses system to be an ex-‘Labour’ minister advising private companies on how to win contracts taking public services away, and getting paid perhaps two or three times an MP’s salary – on top of an MP’s salary!

How did other MPs react to the example set by yourself (and fellow left MPs Pat Wall and Terry Fields), proving that the job could (and perhaps should) be done on the average worker’s wage?

Although there were a number of honourable exceptions (Dennis Skinner’s and other Campaign Group MPs’ generous donations during the miners’ strike, for example), for many Labour MPs it wasn’t the socialist ideas we tried to champion in parliament that upset them the most, but the threat to them receiving their ‘due reward’.

Perhaps the most vivid example was the debate on MPs’ salaries and allowances shortly after the 1987 general election (MPs’ wage increases were never announced before elections, when they might upset voters). The debate started at 9pm and went on until past midnight, and yet every seat in the House was taken! The motion was for a 21.9 per cent rise in MPs’ salaries from £356 a week to £434 a week. That £80 a week rise was £3 more than the then take-home pay for a whole week for civil servants, upon whom the government had just imposed a 4.25 per cent pay award.

I organised the vote against. I prepared a speech, which I reckoned would take me 10-15 minutes to deliver. Because of interruptions, it actually took 38 minutes. I asked MPs to vote against the rise; but that if it were passed I asked Labour MPs to give at least 5 per cent of their new salaries to the Labour Party to prevent the proposed 40 redundancies that were due to take place at Labour headquarters.

Immediately after me, David Blunkett spoke and complained about me ‘lecturing colleagues on how much to give of their pay’. He said he tried ‘to do a good job, to learn how to do it better and to try to earn the rewards that I am paid’. The motion to increase MPs’ wages by 22 per cent went through by an 11 to one majority.

David Blunkett now apparently gets three times his MP’s salary (on top of his MP’s salary) in outside earnings from firms including A4e, which describes itself as ‘a leader in global public service reform’.

I rest my case.

Dave Nellist was MP for Coventry South East from 1983 until 1992

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