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British politics

If you want better politicians, pay them more

Life as a ministerial aide, as depicted in The Thick of It

British politics has a problem with money, says Bagehot in The Economist: “there is not enough of it”. Most ministerial aides get paid only £40,000 to £80,000 a year, even though they “help run departments with budgets that can stretch to over £100bn”. Things are even worse for the opposition. Labour recently put out a job ad for a new “head of economic policy”. The pay, for a role that will probably help shape “the direction of a £2trn economy”? A measly £50,000. It’s the same at think tanks, where wonks are “expected to be able to crunch numbers as well as any banker”, on a tiny fraction of a banker’s salary.

This stuff matters, because “good government requires a healthy stream of good ideas”. Germany provides its think tanks with “generous state funding”; in the US, they are paid for by “plutocrats from across the political spectrum”. Here, our under-funded think tankers focus on chasing headlines rather than “solving deep problems”. Low pay also dilutes the quality of our elected representatives. When MPs first received a salary, in 1911, it was six times the average wage; today, at £84,000, it’s just over double – and well below what lawyers, bankers and even accountants are making. The sad truth is that politics has become “the preserve of those who are rich, mad, thick or saintly” – and “the saints are outnumbered”. If voters want a better standard of politician, as they always say they do, then “someone has to pay for it”.