Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


1