To misquote someone very wise, if the answer is to pay politicians more, it must be a very strange question.
The furore over the inflation-busting increase for AMs was inevitable, and completely predictable; but that is true whenever politicians vote themselves a pay rise, and however large the rise. They knew what the response would be, and decided to go ahead anyway. Blowing the political froth away for a moment, is there a justification?
The two arguments put forward are firstly that AMs are now working harder because the Assembly has more powers, and secondly that there is a need to attract a better quality of AM; both arguments which the Western Mail editorial rehearses eloquently this morning. Do they stand up to scrutiny?
Certainly, the Assembly has more powers now, and is likely to be gaining more as more LCOs are passed, and that in turn means that the Assembly as a whole has more responsibility. But the changed situation under the latest Act also sees a clearer split between the Executive and the Legislature under which it is at least possible to argue that back-bench AMs actually have less influence now than they did previously.
Are they working ‘harder’? I don’t know how those of us outside the institution can ever properly judge that. Much of the work they do, in representing their constituents, is largely unseen by most of us (and likely to be extremely variable between the best and the worst as well). It is probably unfair (although entirely natural) for us to judge their performance solely on the basis of what we see them do in plenary sessions. But it would help their case not insignificantly if people could see that they were actually debating sensibly instead of playing silly games.
I am convinced that increasing the number of AM’s to 80 to deal with the changed situation, as recommended by Richard, is a sensible way forward. Presumably those who argue that they need an increase for working harder now would then accept a decrease as the workload was shared amongst a higher number?
Will paying them more attract a better standard of AM? I see little basis for supporting this argument. The brightest and best in Welsh society can still earn far more in other occupations, and are unlikely to be attracted to become politicians solely on the basis of the money. Although there is a potential argument that some may be deterred by low pay, I just don’t see the argument that high pay will attract them. In any event, do we really want people who are there because they can earn more by being an AM than they could in any other walk of life? (Although those even more cynical than I might argue that we already have a number of those - and still would have even if the pay was halved).
More importantly, how exactly does the electoral process ensure that able people win anyway? Some constituencies are so safe for one or other party that the proverbial donkey would still win, no matter how many able people the other parties in the same seat may put up. ‘Ability’ is only a criterion (and not necessarily the one which determines the outcome at that) in internal party selections; the elections themselves are more to do with tribalism.
We do need a way of fixing the pay of our politicians which doesn’t involve them in having to vote on their own pay. But having fixed it once, why not then link all increases to the average increase in public sector pay, so that they gain from – or lose by – the increases which other public sector workers receive?
PS – some are suggesting that, if Plaid AM's are opposed to the rise, they should refuse to accept it. I have my doubts about this. In the first place, it seems to turn a general issue about politicians' pay into a more personalised one, and in the second place, it looks like gesture politics. Some MPs have in the past refused to accept increases, but I wonder how long that refusal lasts in practice before they quietly accept the rise. Gesture politics is no substitute for a proper resolution to the issue.