Life Of An MP
Oona King (Author and Former Member of Parliament) gives expert video advice on: Who was your boss?; How much do MPs earn?; Do all MPs get the same salary? and more...
Who was your boss?
MPs have a very obvious boss, which is the head of their party, and if you are the party in power, the prime minister is your boss. But the really interesting thing about the House of Commons, Virginia Bottom, she put it very well. She said there are 650 MPs, and it is basically a house of 650 sole traders. That is, you really do not have any boss. No one gives you any appraisal. The general election and people shouting at you in the street. But basically there is no intelligent appraisal of what you are doing in between a general election. There is very little. There is the media. You do not really have a boss. Your constituents decide whether you are going to be there in the future, but you could get away. Some MP's get away with doing very little. They are a very small minority and most of them are running around manically. Which is quite strange because considering in theory, they really do not have a boss.
How much do MPs earn?
When I was selected to be an MP which was in 97, at the beginning of 97, MPs were earning £33,000 a year. That was put up to £45,000, something like that, and then up to £58,000. I think 58,000 pounds a year or I think it might be 56,000 pounds a year. I might have got that wrong an extra 2,000 pounds. I don't think that's a monstrous amount of money when you consider that the head of the local authority earns 120,000 pounds a year, or more quite often. However, it is a lot of money, obviously if you're in an area like I was, and you need to employ extra people out of your salary; it quickly shrinks dramatically. In fact that's exactly what happened with me, and you have to pay for your constituents ,so you don't get everything I imagined. Oh, I'm an MP all my office costs are paid for. I'll tell you that they give you a certain amount, and if you get more letters in, you need to arrange more meetings. Whatever it might be, or you might even just want to put a leaflet out to your constitutes telling them what you're doing, that can cost £10,000 and you've got to take that 10,000 pounds out of your own salary. So, you know if you've spent your office costs allowance, so it does sound like a lot of money. I don't think British MPs are massively overpaid, and I think we are among the worst paid MPs in Europe. The last thing I wanted to say is that I'm not suggesting we should start a save the MP campaign, it's not as bad as that at all, but it's not what a lot of people think, and I was quite shocked that being an MP put me into really serious financial debt, and I had to remortgage my house. I'm not saying stop it, but it's not like you get everything on a plate, it's not like everyone imagines.
Do all MPs get the same salary?
MPs that aren't ministers, all get the same salary. For me, it's not the salary that is the issue. It's the amount of money that you get for your office, to run it. I was getting, at my constituency surgery, 50, 60, 70 people coming to see me each week. I would speak to MPs. I had lots of MPs that were friends out in the country, that would say, "Oh we had to shut our surgery because nobody showed up." I don't get 70 times the members of staff or 70 times the resources, and it's really hard. I think its unfair, it's not just hard on the MP. It is. The MP has the large case load, but its unfair on the constituents because it means that if you go to an MP who's got a huge case load, they inevitably can only give you a fraction of the time and attention that an MP can who's got a small case load. MPs shouldn't actually get the same. I think MPs that have got a really big constituency should get more, and obviously if you're a minister you get paid more as well.
What perks do MPs get?
MPs get loads of perks. Basically, you can do what you want. I said they get loads of perks. I mean, for instance, in my job that I left beforehand, I was a trade union officer. I worked for the GMB and, in most jobs, quite often, you are allowed to get a taxi home at night if you are working after 9pm 10pm. I'd finish work at midnight and as an MP, I wasn't allowed to claim a taxi. But, I could claim it for my assistant. Because it wasn't fair for the assistant to be left out. So, you would get quite sensational perks in so far as you are a member of the most prestigious club in the country, really. If that floats your boat then fantastic! I was never really very interested in that and for me, that wasn't a great perk. But, you get free parking in central London. That is a very good perk.
Did people treat you differently because you were an MP?
People definitely treat you differently most of the time. It's not necessarily their fault, but you can tell. People start whispering when you walk into the room, or they might treat you differently, in a nice way. They give you more time to put your point of view across. They want to hear what you've got to say, or they throw eggs in your face. But usually, when people would find out that I was an MP, their attitude would immediately change towards me. That might be in a theoretically nice way, they were more polite or whatever. It might have been in a worse way, and they would just start screaming in my face. They would definitely change. Their attitude towards me would change.
How does being an MP affect family life?
Being an MP basically ruins family life. You can try and get round that but the bottom-line is that it's very hard to be an MP and see your family. This is because you're locked in the House of Commons physically, so you can't get away, and there's no way of getting around it. You can't very easily have a great time with your family when you are an MP.
Are many of your friends MPs?
Many friends are MPs, they're not necessarily the sort of people I go out clubbing with, but there are some great people in the House of Commons. My point of view is there are a lot of people outside the House of Commons, and I didn't want to be locked up with MPs. I do have a lot of friends that are MPs.
What was your greatest success as an MP?
My greatest success was changing the law in various areas, because it is fairly hard to change the law. I got the government to take up a law. It's a bit arcane, and people could check my website, if you want to know the detail of it, oonaking.com. It was about how you stop people getting ripped off when the place they work for is privatized, so for cleaners, low paid people in the NHS and a lot of public sector things. That was one area, and the other one maybe was the best compliment I ever got as an MP, which was that people would always go, "But you can't be an MP, you're too normal," and I think that was an achievement, trying to be normal.
What was your greatest failure as an MP?
My greatest failure as an MP was in two areas I think. Obviously everyone would say Iraq. A lot of people felt betrayed by me in a way, it is weird, I had someone say this to me the other day, "We don't mind that so and so voted for it, it is that you betrayed me because you did". The fact that I was on committee's that looked at what Saddam had done and I felt very strongly about that issue, and I said on the record a long time before it came up, if we ever have a chance to get rid of Saddam Hussein we must do that. I wasn't going to change my view just because George Bush suddenly thought it was a good idea to go over, but the point is that is a failure because it is a failure to be able to explain your point of view and also because your point of view did not work out to be the best case scenario. So you have to be careful and put your hands up and take the rap, which I think I did quite publicly.
Whats the hardest part of being an MP?
The hardest part of beng an MP is trying to stay normal, trying to stay just being able able to speak your mind. You can't, because people crucify you every time you do, often in the media or even just little things. I'll give you one example. I was chatting with a woman in a queue on a Saturday. She goes, "Well, you can't be an MP. My God, you look really normal. You've got combat trainers on, you've got a pierced belly-button, do you dress like that to go to meetings?" And I said, "Well, no, not usually." It was a Saturday, and I said, "I'm going to a meeting in a minute at the Moskowitz's, I would change my clothes." Next morning, headline in the paper, "MP Oona Leads A Double Life." A female source close to Oona King, i.e. the woman standing behind me in the queue, says she changes her clothes when she goes... she has to deceive the people she's with about the real person she is, etc., and it just makes you think, I can't have a chat to the person standing behind me in the queue because you never know what's going to happen, and that's a shame.
Whats the best part of being an MP?
The best part of being an MP is the chance to change how things are carried out in Britain. To say “that's not fair” and I want to change it. And I did change the law in five areas and that will always be something that I hold very dear to my heart.
Whats the worst part of being an MP?
The worst part of being an MP is having to be locked up with other MPs often until 2 o'clock in the morning or later.
What hours do MPs work?
MPs often work from about 8 A.M. It can be earlier. If you're doing TV interviews, you often have to start at 6 A.M., not get up but start, so you're getting up at 4 A.M. You will often go through until about midnight. When Parliament was sitting, midnight would be the average time when I would get home, which is why I'm quite happy not being an MP.
Do MPs have to attend all Parliamentary sessions?
It depends what you mean by Parliamentary session. If you mean when Parliament is open and they are debating, no. You can be attending Parliament, being in the building, being at other meetings, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're in the chamber. Obviously you can look at MPs' voting records. Some MPs have literally atrocious voting records. I won't name any names, but you can see that they are not taking it seriously at all.
Are MPs free to vote any way they want?
MPs can vote any way they want, but they have to decide whether they care if they can influence their party. In Britain, we have a party pledge system, and it doesn't take a brain surgeon to work out if you constantly piss your party off and constantly disagree with everything they say, then when you go to them and say, oh hello Mr. party person could you help me change the law on this and they say, piss off. There's nothing to stop you physically. You're not going to be actually whipped physically, but like I say it's a trade-off in influence. So, you just have to decide how much you want to influence things and at what point you're not prepared to do something because you don't care if you lose the influence. It's better than voting for something that you really don't agree with.
What problems can my MP help me with?
Your MP can help you with many problems but they can do it in different ways. Many MP traditionally don't help with housing problems simply because, in this area for instance, there are twenty thousand people on the housing waiting list. If they all write to their MP, it doesn't really make that much difference. Where it makes a difference is when an organization, an authority hasn't fulfilled their obligation, an MP is able to step in and say, if it is the case, and the housing authority hasn't done this, local government hasn't done that, if you feel that there has been a miscarriage of justice, an MP is in a position to take that case up. Also an MP is in a position to raise your views in Parliament, so I often would get debates from my constituents on issues that I thought were important. That might range from a social behaviour, learning disabilities and speech and language therapy. Literally the subject matter is as wide as all debate that goes on in Britain.
Can an MP really make a difference?
An MP can definitely make a difference on a personal level, and I received thousands and thousands of cards and letters from individual constituents who told me I had changed their life. That's really gratifying if you work really hard. A lot of the times in the media you just get slagged off from morning until night, so it's nice when on a personal level you know that you've made a difference. An MP can also make a difference in Parliament depending on how savvy they are. You got some clever MP's, and you've got some less clever MP's. The clever MP's are the ones who work out how the system works, how you influence a minister, how you retain that influence with the minister, and how you bring that influence to bear.