Poor pay and terrible PR: who’d be a local councillor?

money-rollANYONE who’s been a job-seeker will know the feeling. You’re scrolling through a “duties include” list and your heart starts to sink. What kind of superhuman could possibly direct, deliver, maintain and monitor all of this stuff? You scroll further with trepidation, half expecting them to have slipped in “standing on your head” or “juggling with knives” just to check you’re still paying attention. Then the real kicker comes: the salary. For all that? Jeezo.

Yet when talk turns to politicians’ salaries, the focus is less on what they do and more on who on earth they think they are, expecting that sort of money for working long hours far from home, listening to non-stop gripes from their constituents and receiving a steady stream of personal abuse. The popular narrative is that while your parliamentary representative might be a very nice chap/lady who was really helpful when your auntie had that problem that time, collectively they are pulling off a massive con at our expense.

The great philosopher Louis CK once said that you should only ever look into your neighbour’s bowl to check they have enough, but when your neighbour is an MSP on twice the national average salary it’s hard to resist a peek, and hard not to be envious when you compare their gold-encrusted Coco Pops with your own-brand rice puffs. However, with local politicians it’s a different story. With a basic salary of just £16,893, they’re lucky if they can afford the milk.

The role attracts almost as much disdain and suspicion as any other political office, but the remuneration is terrible

Who’d be a councillor? The role attracts almost as much disdain and suspicion as any other political office, but the remuneration is terrible. Yes, councillors are allowed to carry on working in other jobs after being elected, but their employers are required only to allow them a “reasonable” amount of time off for council duties. Research has found that while the average councillor spends 36 hours a week on council business, those with other jobs notch up a 56-hour working week (31 hours for the council plus 25 hours elsewhere). The only logical conclusion is that this latter group are in fact sophisticated robots, sent by alien enemies to gradually take down human civilisation one planning committee meeting at a time.

It’s not just that the duties of a councillor are numerous – the same is true of many jobs, after all. But there is no limit to the number of hours that could potentially be spent engaging, lobbying, influencing and advocating, not to mention scrutinising, voting and sitting on committees. Visitors to www.localcouncillor.scot, which sets out what the role involves, are advised to talk things over with family and friends to ensure their “support and understanding”. Again, the same could be said to apply to many other roles that require evening and weekend working – but the likes of teachers, doctors and police officers are compensated with more than £17,000 a year for this inconvenience. It’s not assumed they will be moonlighting elsewhere to make ends meet.

Perhaps we find it hard to imagine that anyone would take on such a demanding role out of a sense of civic duty

Perhaps the low pay is, in fact, part of the reason why councillors get such a kicking, and why their personal motives are frequently questioned. Perhaps we find it hard to imagine that anyone would take on such a demanding role out of a sense of civic duty. A steady drip-drip of revelations about corruption and nepotism in our local authorities gives the unfortunate impression that shenanigans are standard practice for elected members, who may not even perceive their actions as morally dubious. If your day job is linked to the council in any way, it’s surely impossible to demonstrate that your in-depth knowledge of things like tendering processes, regeneration plans and service restructuring are not giving your employer an edge. This need not involve breaching confidentiality – the information might all be in the public domain, with the relevant detail the needle in a bureaucratic haystack.

It wasn’t so long ago that members of Glasgow City Council could pocket thousands of extra pounds a year for sitting on the boards of arm’s-length bodies owned by the authority – a nice little earner that according to the SNP’s John Swinney meant they were effectively paid twice. A fundamentally dishonest worker will always be ready to put their hand in the till when the boss’s back is turned, but surely paying councillors a fairer wage would reduce the temptation for them to top up their earnings, whether by bending the rules or by taking on extra duties that pull them away from the bread-and-butter work of representing their constituents.

Surely paying councillors a fairer wage would reduce the temptation for them to top up their earnings?

When Common Weal this week published its proposals for a “Citizens Assembly” second chamber at Holyrood, the notion of a £55,000-a-year salary for its members was met with understandable splutters of disbelief. But how much would be too much for a role with the potential power to block legislation; legislation that might touch every one of our lives? We cannot on one hand complain that anyone who goes into politics is motivated by greed and an unsavoury quest for power and influence, but on the other hand rule out salaries that represent fair pay for the hours and effort involved.

The next time someone complains about politicians’ pay, why not ask them if they fancy standing for election themselves? If the answer is no, perhaps they should keep their eyes on their own bowl – or turn their attention to boosting the breakfasts of those who earn less.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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