Sunday 7 February 2010

Expenses: What is to be Done?

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.


Jim Jepps said...

I think after twenty years of annual parliaments we'd probably see them as very different kinds of events than we do now.

On the subject of the workers' wage;

As I understand it Dave used to donate the rest of the money to his organisation - Militant - so he cost the tax payer the same amount as the other MPs. Recently Jean Lambert took some stick for doing this as, like the other Green MEPs, AMs, etc. as she was accused of funding the Green Party at taxpayers' expense.

Now, I'm in favour of this arrangement where elected people pay a large portion of their pay to their organisation but of course that would all end if we cut the pay of MPs.

Do you think it would be better for MPs to refuse to take the money, forcing a cut in their pay or do like Jean and Dave did, take the money and then pass it on to fund the cause?

Phil said...

I think as long as representatives like Jean and Dave are honest about where the surplus money goes, most people will be happy with that. So if someone does take the average wage, I'd much rather that dosh go to either the organisation or some campaigning fund. Though I'm some what more open minded about the workers' wage than I used to be, the point of it is it's supposed to make for more effective representatives rather than saving taxpayers a bob or two.

Do you know any other green representative who takes the average wage?

Jim Jepps said...

They're all expected to give a large slice of the pie to the party if that's their job (so most town councilors for example are getting much less than an average wage from that and so would just donate like everyone else).

What the Greens don't do is use the phrase "workers' wage" and there is no set formula. Also it's not a requirement, they just all do (all four of them!).

How that is worked out and where it goes seems to be different. For instance the London AM's Jenny and Darren both give over thousands to the party a year (can't name the figure I'm afraid but I did see it once and thought 'blimey, that's a lot) one of them gives it to the London party and the other to the national.

NB Scotland is a different party so I don't know what the MSPs do, although it may well be the same arrangement.

Phil said...

I don't think there's any formal arrangement in the SP either. As far as I know Joe Higgins just takes the average wage, but I'm not sure if the surplus goes direct to the party or some other fund (can an Irish comrade enlighten us?) But when Terry Fields was an MP he just took the equivalent of his firefighter's salary. Perhaps it would be the same for any SP member who gets elected and who already earns more than the average.

P said...

Terry Fields and Dave Nellist donated the surplus between their parliamentary salaries and the workers wage they took home to diverse Labour movement causes. They published accounts that they shared with their local Labour Party and the press to show exactly where every penny went, long before the Freedom of Information Act.

Their payments to the Militant came out of the take home pay they had left, so they were just the same as other comrades.

It's reasonable to suggest if someone is a skilled worker, that they take the same wage that they took in their job, so that they are not taking a pay cut. It's also reasonable for MPs to claim expenses that related directly to their job.

The example of openness, accountability and self-sacrifice set by Dave and Terry stands like a beacon above the augean stables that is today's parliamentary labour party.

luna17 said...

There are many good things about George Galloway, but proposing a rise in MPs' salaries is not one of them. It's an issue of politics and democracy. If MPs are to genuinely represent those who elect them - and have a connection with them - they shouldn't earn significantly more than the vast majority of those electors.

Mark P said...

The issue of relatively highly paid workers having to take a pay cut is one that can be relatively easily accomodated if the "workers wage" principle is applied with a degree of flexibility.

The issue is that workers representatives shouldn't be paid vast salaries that give them incomes and lifestyles which are entirely divorced from those of the people they are representing. The average wage is a sensible place to peg a "workers wage", but on the one occasion when a member of parliament who used to have a higher wage was elected, Terry Fields kept his firefighters wage.

As for where the money goes, Joe Higgins donates the vast bulk of his wages to a large assortment of labour movement or community campaigns, causes, etc. Even if the Socialist Party wanted him to donate his salary to the party he couldn't, because there is a legal limit on the amount someone can donate to a political party in Ireland, somewhere around €6000. That's a very small part of an MEP's salary!

Paul said...

Have set out my thoughts in response at

So there.

Phil said...

Paul has a very thought-provoking take on all this here.

Phil said...

You beat me by all of four minutes!