Elliot Morley, David Chaytor, Jim Devine. As Labour MPs go they're cards aren't they? It's not enough that they've allegedly swindled the system by submitting false expense claims *and* will be in receipt of at least £30k "relocation money" when they step down, but now the right honourable members have the cheek to pursue parliamentary privilege defence to avoid court action. In a society where the rich and powerful are litigious, this is an important democratic gain worth defending. So to see it dragged through the muck to defend the sullied reputations of men caught with their hands in the taxpayer's pocket is a sickening sight. You cannot but agree with Ruth Cox of the Hansard Society, who says
"If it is a defence against almost any action that an MP takes in parliament, in any relationship with their work, then I think that is going to be deeply damaging for the public. They will see that it is putting MPs above the public, giving them enhanced powers, making them essentially above the laws that they themselves make." (source)Coming on top of the wider expenses crisis, if this defence is allowed and the trio of troughers emerge unscathed this will compound the widespread antipathy against 'official' politics. Not good news for the mainstream parties or the minor ones to their left, but it provides fertile environment for the far right.
What can be done to prevent a scandal like this from happening again? The anarchists have traditionally argued against seeking election on grounds that democracy in capitalist societies corrupts even the best representatives of the workers' movement. They have a point. I remember a Coventry SP comrade telling me of all the freebies and corporate invites that poured into Dave Nellist's office when he was elected to parliament in 1983. He turned them all down and, famously, only took the average wage of a Coventry skilled worker during the two terms he served.
Dave's example, as well as those of Militant's two other MPs and the Scottish Socialist Party's MSPs have provided the far left with a ready made answer to the expenses crisis. I'm sure many SP readers did their share of stalls calling for a workers' MP on a worker's wage at the height of the scandal (I certainly did a few). It sounds good and makes easily understood populist points, but how much of a solution is it?
The argument goes that limiting a MP's wage means s/he is not materially cut off from the people they represent. It's a lot easier to empathise with constituents who struggle to make ends meet if your income is not an order of magnitude higher. While this may be true the workers' wage, in and of itself, is problematic if uniformly applied. There is the wage cut argument (often picked up by Tories and other well-heeled members). If a MP's salary is not sufficiently attractive it will not draw in successful people from business, etc. I couldn't care less if business-types steered clear of the House of Commons (it's not like they're thin on the ground at the moment), but what about comparatively well paid sectors of the labour movement such as teachers, engineers, firefighters, social workers, etc? Some might be willing to take a wage cut for ideological reasons, but with kids to bring up and mortgages to pay off even a modest cut could be enough to put off otherwise dedicated activists. Second, implementing the average wage could exacerbate the already disgraceful situation regarding MPs' second jobs and, for some, make them even more willing to accept the gratuities business lavishes on our elected representatives.
An alternative favoured by George Galloway is to increase the salaries of MPs to the levels enjoyed by members of Congress in the United States. If they were paid a hefty salary out of which the cost of maintaining an office and employing staff was taken, everything would be above board. An unwieldy expenses system would be unnecessary, and MPs would be less likely to take on second jobs. But the problem of the income gap addressed by the average wage argument rears its head again.
Whatever the merits of the two income arguments, it's mistaken to present either as solutions that would banish the problem of institutionally corrupt politics altogether. Two reforms addressing the election and accountability of MPs would likely have more of an impact than either.
The Chartists were certainly onto something with their call for annual parliaments. They were entirely right that the more precarious position an MP is in, the more accountable they are to the electorate. I'm not sure if anyone has the appetite for a general election every year, but the implementation of mechanisms for recalling MPs could work just as well. This must go hand in hand with some form of proportional representation (see here). If political parties and MPs have to fight for every single vote no one will coast into parliament on the back of safe, geographically concentrated majorities (and as Left Foot Forward pointed out, the worst expenses offenders also happened to have the safest seats).
But for any improved system to work, it's not enough to engineer better constitutional arrangements. Politics needs to re-engage the millions of people who've been alienated from it these last 20 years. It's not a matter of educating the electorate or forcing citizenship classes on school kids. Parties need to eat humble pie and listen to the real problems of 'real' people, and pay big business and the mythological 'Middle England' less mind.
Image by Beau Bo D'Or.