Thursday 21 May 2009

Socialist Party on the Expenses Crisis

I have been meaning to blog on this issue all week. After all, it's not every day mainstream politics plunges into a mammoth legitimation crisis and brings forth something of a constitutional conundrum. Thankfully The Socialist this week has a rather good editorial which I reproduce here that lets me off having to write anything original. Please note the demands it makes in relation to how the Socialist Party would like to see parliament restructured.

In The Great Stink of 1858 the Houses of Parliament hung lime-soaked sheets at the windows to disguise the stench of untreated sewage rising from the Thames. In the Great Stink of 2009 no such solution is available - for the stink comes from inside.

The endless revelations about MPs' expenses have left the population disgusted and furious. Money was claimed for every imaginable frippery - from getting the moat cleaned to paying domestic servants, from massage chairs to buying champagne flutes and eighteen piece dinner sets. Outright fraud was officially sanctioned, or at least tacitly encouraged, with the Fees Office apparently telling MPs that it was fine to claim on mortgage debt that had already been repaid.

MPs tried to defend themselves by suggesting that it was their 'low' pay - £64,766 per year - which justified their excessive expenses! To the 90% of people who earn less than £40,000 a year this sounds obscene.

Against the background of a devastating economic recession - with millions facing unemployment and the gap between rich and poor wider than it was under Margaret Thatcher - the MPs' expenses scandal has brought to the surface all of the accumulated anger, particularly of the working class. One BBC poll revealed, unsurprisingly, that 73% of the less skilled sections of the working class (social class DE) thought that MPs named and shamed in the newspapers over their expense claims should be forced to stand down from parliament, compared with 51% from social class AB.
Westminster Bubble
Floating in their privileged Westminster bubble, MPs were completely detached from the reality of working class people's lives, feelings and opinions. Now a blast of the hot fury of the working class has left them quaking. As Diane Abbott MP put it: "The public ... want to see dead MPs hanging from lamp-posts".

The fury is heightened because of the contrast between New Labour's increase in repressive laws, and the MPs on the fiddle being able to walk away with no more than a slap on the wrist. In its twelve years in office New Labour has introduced 3,600 new laws. Ordinary people are hemmed in by endless petty bureaucracy from draconian parking fines, to hefty surcharges for being late paying your council tax, or the law coming down on you like a tonne of bricks if you claim slightly more benefit than you are strictly entitled to. 'I was too busy' is not an excuse which the courts or the councils accept.

All three establishment parties are now desperately looking for a way to appease 'the mob'. For the first time since 1695, parliament's Speaker, Michael Martin has been forced from office. This is blatant hypocrisy. The Speaker is in it up to his neck - but so are Cameron, Clegg, Brown and many other ministers and MPs. They hope that sacrificing the Speaker might save the rest of their sorry skins.

There is talk in the
Labour Party of disciplining some MPs for 'bringing the party into disrepute'. Ironically, this was the charge used to expel socialist MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields in the 1990s. Their 'crime' was standing up in the interests of the working class, including only taking the average workers' wage. Their expulsion marked a qualitative step towards Labour becoming the party it is today, a party that stands in the interests of big business, and as Helena Kennedy QC said in The Guardian, where MPs "rubbed shoulders with the banking classes and bought into the culture of greed."

Even if a handful of the worst offenders are expelled from the Labour Party, it will still be 'too little too late'. This crisis is going to rumble on. The Labour Party is suffering most - some opinion polls suggest it could even come fourth in the European Elections - behind
UKIP. Desperate to cling to power, Brown will try to avoid calling a general election before next May, but he could be forced to. However, all three establishment parties have been undermined, as has British 'parliamentary democracy' itself. This is a profound crisis for British capitalism. Confidence in the institutions through which it rules is at an historic low.

There is a comparison to be drawn with 'mani pulite', the 'clean hands' scandal in Italy in the early 1990s. As a result of the unveiling of the all-pervading corruption in Italian politics, the whole electoral system was changed. All four of the parties in government when the crisis broke were destroyed by it, and have since disappeared.

In Britain today the leaders of all three establishment parties fear that they could face a similar fate.

If a mass workers' party existed in Britain today, with elected representatives living on the average wage of a worker, it would be able to act to channel the wave of anger that is breaking over the capitalist parties and use it to push forward workers' interests.

Such a party would need to raise democratic demands, including:
No MP to receive more than the average wage of a skilled worker.
Abolish the House of Lords.
MPs to be re-elected every two years.
The introduction of proportional representation.

This crisis has revealed the contempt in which the capitalist politicians are held. Thirty years of neo-liberal policies - ceaseless attacks raining down on public services and the living conditions of the working class - have profoundly undermined and hollowed out the social base of all three capitalist parties. With New Labour now being a completely capitalist party, only the faintest echo remains of the old working class loyalty it once had. The
Tories are ahead in the opinion polls, but this is based on revulsion at New Labour's policies and not enthusiasm for those of the Tories. If the Tories are elected in the next general election, an attempt to carry out their programme - of even more brutal attacks on the working class than Labour has carried out - will face a revolt from the working class and large sections of the middle class. Their electoral support could quickly implode.

In the European elections on 4 June it is clear that, while many will stay at home in disgust, a large number of those who vote will be aiming to punish the establishment parties. Fearing where a protest vote will go, the capitalist media has consciously promoted the right wing populist party UKIP as the protest vote of choice, despite it having had an MEP jailed for corruption! The far-right racist British National Party has also received widespread coverage in the media. Their portrayal of the BNP as the 'bogeyman' of politics may encourage a section of working class people - furious with all MPs - to vote BNP.

Green Party, with two MEPs, is also gaining a greater profile, with 11% in one opinion poll. The Greens are seen as standing on the left, but in reality in the European Parliament the European Greens have supported privatisation - including the Postal Services Directive, which is the law under which Royal Mail is being part-privatised.

However, there is a pro-working class slate standing in the European elections.
No2EU - Yes to Democracy, has been initiated by the transport workers' union, the RMT, and is supported by some of the most militant trade unionists in Britain today. Its candidates include leaders of the Lindsey strike, the Visteon car plant occupations, and Rob Williams - victimised convenor of Linamar car component plant. Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist, who for nine years was a workers' MP on a worker's wage, is heading the list in the West Midlands.

No2EU - Yes to Democracy stands against privatisation and in defence of workers' rights and public services. If elected, its MEPs will not take a penny from the EU gravy train. No2EU offers an alternative in the European elections. It also represents the beginning of creating a workers' alternative to the corrupt capitalist parties.

In the next general election Dave Nellist and other Socialist Party members will be standing on the basis of becoming 'a workers' MP on a worker's wage'. The Socialist Party will encourage other trade unionists and community campaigners to do the same.


Charlie Marks said...

Good editorial raising crucial issues such as the lower your income, the more outraged you are likely to be - everyone I know is well and truly pissed, but there's a strong sense that a UKIP or Green vote is more likely than a BNP vote; it's right to point out that for most of those voting BNP it will be because the political elite uses them to make the stale consensus appear dynamic.

As ever, the practical reforms are presented alongside the analysis - which is what I admire about the SP.

But on the Greens, it's misleading to ignore the differences between the European Greens and the party as it exists in England where the Greens support and campaign on opposition to privatization and for the renationalisation of the utilities and railways; both MEPs, Jean Lambert and Caroline Lucas, have a good record on workers' rights and the party has a socialist current in the form of the Green Left.

Just as we cannot right off the Labour Left, there's little point in standing against incumbents who are worth re-electing and with whom we can have critical engagement. Whatever the results of the Euro elections, the No2EU project is a massive step forward for the trade union movement - I only hope that there will be another forward step in ensuring that at the general elections there will be a pro-worker candidate in each constituency that all groups can unite around.

tim f said...

I've never understood the argument that MPs should get the average wage of a skilled worker, rather than the median wage of all workers.

Surely the point is for them to be on a wage that puts them in touch with the everyday concerns of ordinary people. We can't pay them in the same way as everyone else (ie more wages if they are "skilled") as otherwise we'd have to award them extra pay for overtime and any of them who were doing 90 hours a week (which for some MPs is entirely possible) would receive a salary of what a backbencher now gets, defeating the whole point of them earning the same as most other people.

I agree with abolishing the House of Lords, disagree with proportional representation and I'm not sure about the practical results of re-election of MPs every two years. said...

The Mps should be on £22,000 p.a. because this is the median average wage.Any more and they'll be earning more than most people they "represent".
We should demand that they repay their expenses.
We are going to lobby our MPs surgeries in Brighton demanding our money back.What is happening in other towns?
Finally,the Chartists demanded annual parliaments 150 years ago.That'd stop the pre-election-bribes+post-election-cuts cycle and make MPs a bit more accountable said...

In Brighton we're going to lobby our MPs surgeries demanding the following
1 payback your expenses
2 support a police investigation into MP's fraud claims
3 in future,live off the median average wage of your constituents
This last point is the same as tim f above.An MP should not be earning more than most of their constituents
Tim f.The Chartists demanded annual parliaments 150 years ago to force MPs to be accountable.Sounds good enough to me.

David Hillman said...

But the Italian scandals led to Berlusconni!

Matt Sellwood said...


I've seen this claim around the place in the last few weeks:

"The Greens are seen as standing on the left, but in reality in the European Parliament the European Greens have supported privatisation - including the Postal Services Directive, which is the law under which Royal Mail is being part-privatised."

I've looked into this further, just to check - this simply isn't true. The Greens have consistently voted against the Postal Services Directive. Where are you getting this from?


Charlie Marks said...

Matt, it's probably the confusion between the Greens in England and Green parties elsewhere. There's something rather unMarxist about the way some people categorize the Greens - I've been told that they inevitably end up backing neoliberalism in power, that they are objectively for the continued rule of the capitalist class, etc.

As for the formulation used in the above editorial, would it not have been more polite to say, "well, the Greens are standing but we urge you to vote No2EU"?

Phil said...

Matt, my eyebrow rose a bit on that one too in light of the rebuttals on this. As far as I'm aware the claim is based on Jean Lambert and Caroline Lucas voting on a heavily amended motion on this issue that still committed the EU to liberalising postal services. I'm quite happy to be put right.

Matt Sellwood said...


I've received the following from people involved in our European legislative efforts who know far more than me. It seems pretty categorical! Unless The Socialist and No2EU more widely have contrary information, they really need to stop making this claim.


"on services of general interest (i.e. public services, ), the Green Group is clear that member states should decide how they are run and they should not be opened up unless the government chooses to do so: they should also not be treated as ordinary businesses (services of general economic
interest) as their purpose is different. In many countries services are not directly state-owned but are state ensured, e.g. much of the medical treatment in
Germany is provided by charitable or not-for-profit organisations; our own GP surgeries are private practices etc. Because they have different legal structures,
e.g. not-for-profit, charitable, for-profit but mutuals, straight for -profit butcontracted to deliver state directed services, it is difficult to legislate to
ring-fence them from ordinary competition rules. We have a European manifesto commitment to -and indeed, have voted to bring in, - a Directive on Services of
General Interest to protect public services and make clear their special legal status so they should not be subject to ordinary market rules.

In the Services Directive, the Greens voted against it because it did not offer sufficient protection to services of general interest: health and social services are excluded but we also wanted education, social housing and a number of other things out of there. UKIP and the Greens were the only UK parties voting against
the Directive.

Postal Liberalisation: There have been more than one report on this. The 2000 Directive, set the objective of liberalisation for most parts of the postal
service, apart from a "reserved area" for post under a certain weight. and set the date for full liberalisation. The Greens tabled the most far-reaching amendments
to that report, lost them and voted against the report in first reading. So we did NOT vote for liberalisation.

The latest Directive in 2007, set the latest conditions for full liberalisation.

Again, the Greens tabled strong amendments seeking guarantees on rights of workers, universal service, the right of governments to subsidise a particular service etc. We voted against the report because it did not contain sufficient guarantees. However, the principle of liberalisation was set in motion in 2000 and
is supported by national overnments. We engaged heavily in the 2007 Directive in order to restrict the potential effects of inevitable liberalisation and gain
specific guarantees - we were not successful, so voted against.

We have not supported the reports on liberalisation. On the Postal Services Directive, the Greens have consistently voted against."