Sunday 10 May 2009

Fairness And Expenses

I would like to add some reflections following the pattern of Stuart’s thoughtful blog.

The subject of MPs' expenses and all the associated disturbing and trivial details have dominated the papers over the last week, and probably will do so for weeks to come. Many of us who contribute to Next Left will be either directly or indirectly involved in the Westminster world. Therefore, we are uncomfortable in becoming part of the band-wagon of appalled voices baying for blood. Some MPs' may even be our friends or at least people we greatly admire, that we know to work extremely hard and to have an acute social conscience. Furthermore, one can argue that the excessive expenses claims of a minority of MPs' doesn't really matter compared to the inequality in society highlighted this week and consequently should not cloud our focus. In answer I would give the Sir Humphrey response from Yes Minister: yes and no.

I actually think we must comment about this issue and we must realise that a decisive resolution is vital to the image of British politics. After all, Fabian and Labour work regarding political engagement will be rendered futile if this controversy rumbles on. I remember one MP semi-joking regarding another issue that it was 'Hang an MP week', but if the expenses row continues it will become 'Hang an MP' indefinitely.

It is in the interests of the Telegraph and the press in general to drip feed us with revelations. If politicians continue to respond with any hint of self-defense or try to argue their case, they will simply fuel the fire and allow it to rage on and on. As all politicians should know, defending the indefensible leads to self-destruction and will make the public even angrier. The press must be delighted at the scatter-gun responses so far, in which some politicians half-apologize without saying a straight-forward ‘sorry’, and others are clearly on the defensive and in counter-attack mode. At this rate the story will keep the papers busy all summer and the damage it will cause will last far, far longer. Damien McBride and his e-mails will be forgotten in a year (or less) but the fiasco over MPs’ expenses could linger in minds for a generation.

MPs’ must above all banish any attempt to defend themselves by the following argument:- I could earn more in business so generous expenses are justified to make up this difference, exspecially as my job may only last for five years. This is a totally hollow defence, because being an MP is clearly one of the best career moves you can ever make, even though (hopefully) most MPs do not have this in mind when they stand for office. How many former MPs are unemployed? They are the most sought after of all applicants for a job involving public profile or lobbying.

The key Fabian theme in the last year has been fairness. Our research has shown that people have an innate grasp of fairness and it matters in their day to day life, particularly in a time of such economic turmoil. Therefore, it stands to reason that people demand fairness above all from the conduct of elected politicians. Most people live in a working world in which every expense is audited and scrutinised. If you compare this penny-pinching reality with the archaic ‘system’ (hardly a system, rather claim what you want) in Westminster, the public mood is totally justified.

In the following weeks, stories about Conservative expenses will appear and they will be as embarrassing and probably more so than the ones we have read so far. However, we must resist the temptation to play any party political games or even secretly laugh at them. We’re in this together and if we do make snide comments the public perception of partisan politics will reach even lower depths. All of the publicity about expenses is a reverse Lewis Carrol caucus race: everyone's a loser. Thank goodness Damien McBride is not around anymore.

The first step in reforming the process must be an unequivocal and united apology way before the report comes out. Some MPs have obviously got a lot less or nothing to be sorry about than others, but for this to make a real impression to the public it must be a collective response. Phrases of excuse such as ‘this appears bad’ or ‘the perception of this is bad’ etc. must be replaced by this ‘is’ bad and ‘we will change it’. In order to draw a line and move forwards politicians must fight against their nature and deal with this in a very clear way. As Stuart’s blog said, it is no good to have a defence that MPs’ actions were within the rules, when as an MP by definition one sets oneself up as being morally righteous, even superior, to the everyday person. (Whoever heard of an MP saying ‘I have the morals of any old person, and really any old person could be in my place’?).

However, one of the key reforms is already in place. Expenses are in the public domain. Few MPs will be tempted to claim for luxury goods or switch second and first homes if they know all details will be scrutinized by voters. But, this is just the start and must be followed by a strict and independent system akin to the modern workplace.

If fairness in society is to have real resonance, there must be fairness in Westminster. For this reason, we should feel confident in joining the debate about how to achieve this. We must be consistent in our comments and criticisms. Put it this way - how would we treat bankers if they were claiming such expenses from the public purse? I leave you to ponder this.


FloTom said...

Still too meally mouthed for my liking but at least you are now heading down the right track instead of burying your heads in the sand.

Standards should apply across the board whether you are a Banker or an MP.

That is real equality.

DavidBrede said...

Is part of the problem the emergence of more career politicians who have moved from university to the Commons via Political Researcher or some other party apparatchik role.

Therefore their approach is to maximise their income much as employees do by working for benefits such as overtime and expenses.

Historically particularly on the Labour side have been miners and railwaymen who have seen entry to the commons as a privilege and an honour rather than promotion to a better paid job.

John McClane said...

“I have been a trade unionist all my life. I did not come into politics not to take what is owed to me.”That's what Michael Martin said. He was never a SPAD.

Prescott claimed for mock Tudor beams for his house. He was never a SPAD.

Calix said...

Thanks for your comments.

1) Flo Tom - I was trying to be reasonable in my blog and not to be part of the 'baying for blood' for its own sake kind of response. However, I do actually feel strongly about the wrongs of the situation, and in another context my language would be far less 'meally mouthed'!

2)David - I agree with your point about career politicians. The problem is many of them grew up under Thatcherism and its legacy when wealth creation and extravagance was actively encouraged in every sphere. The point is MPs, particularly Labour ones, should be above that.

3) John - I don't quite grasp your point but I'm sure it's a good one!