The most revealing type of political scandal is not the one where rules have been broken, but the ones where they haven’t. Where crisis has erupted over conduct that sits very comfortable within current parliamentary regulations.
While some of the revelations of the recent second jobs scandal, such as that of now former MP Owen Paterson had very clearly broken the rules, most other cases of outside interests and ‘second jobbing’ had not.
In response to the criticism, the government has agreed to new rules to restrict outside earning, limiting what MPs can do alongside their roles in Parliament.
But while tweaks to the rules might solve some of the issues, the underlying political system that has enabled such questionable practice is likely to still remain.
In the wake of mounting criticism over his outside earnings former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has been bullish in his response to criticism. Cox who has come under increased public pressure over the extent (and location) of his outside legal work, argued that it was up to the electors of his Devon West and Torridge constituency to decide “whether or not they vote for someone who is a senior and distinguished professional in his field and who still practices that profession.”
But as we’ve long argued for millions of voters, our safe seat culture means they’re almost powerless to take individual MPs to task in this way. For Cox and his almost 25,000 majority, the thousands of Conservative voters in his constituency would have to turn their back on their party just to register their dissatisfaction with his outside interests.
In reality, these MPs in safe seats are accountable to nobody but their party bosses and short of a seismic shift in the political landscape, the public are powerless to take action and hold them to account.
It should come as no surprise then that MPs in safe seats are far more likely to have taken up second jobs than their colleagues in marginal constituencies.
New research by the campaigning group Best for Britain, found that almost all of the MPs who earn more than their £82,000 parliamentary salary from a second job have majorities in excess of 17,000 votes.
The research found that more than three in five of the 103 MPs with second jobs had majorities of more than 10,000 votes. Some 87% had majorities of more than 3,000 votes – undermining both Boris Johnson and Geoffrey Cox’s suggestion that voters who disapprove of their MP’s outside work can simply unseat them at an election.
The government might have tried to solve the problem, tweaking the rules on second jobs, but until they reform the voting system we will always be saddled with MPs that know that they have a seat for life.
For Cox’s voters in West Devon, First Past the Post means there isn’t another conservative candidate for them to vote for. One who might spend a little less time in the British Virgin Islands or clock fewer hours a week giving legal advice for £1000 an hour.
With the Single Transferable Vote voters can choose between candidates of the same party. If they dislike an MP, but still want their party to be in government, they can just put the alternative candidate as their first preference – hardworking MPs would rise to the top and those with other priorities would likely not.
On top of this, you get a parliament that reflects how people actually voted, that represented the interests of all voters, not just those in marginal seats where the attention is focused on election time.
Until we solve the root cause of scandals like this, more quick fixes will only mask the problem.
Sign our petition to change the voting system to the Single Transferable Vote