Another day, another blow to the heart of our democracy. As the Daily Telegraph reveals yet more expenses atrocities, I expect many Labour activists are thinking “stop the world I want to get off”, or at least about emigrating to America to bask in the still warm glow of Obama’s victory.
I was horrified watching Michael Martin’s response to Kate Hoey’s reasonable plea to take account of the public’s anger, but the sad fact is that he is simply repeating what many MPs are still whining about – their own petty worries about the potential publication of their home and bank details. The mind boggles doesn’t it? As home owners are facing repossession for the want of a few thousand pounds, we are hearing that MPs have made tens of thousands of pounds as a result of improving their homes and yet they are indignant at the idea that this was somehow inappropriate.
All these years Labour activists have argued against the stock voter response about politicians on the doorstep – “you’re only in it for the money” or “you’ve all got your fingers in the till”. I’ve spent time after time explaining that the vast majority of Parliamentarians I’ve met, from all parties, tend to be doing the job they do for the right reasons and that much of the time they act with integrity and make me proud of our Parliament. But this expenses scandal leaves very few politicians untouched; it goes beyond party allegiance, background or longevity in Parliament, and it puts a lie to the faithfully held view of many ordinary party members and supporters that politicians in this country, by and large, are good sorts.
So how can politics move on from here? It’s obvious that all MPs should immediately publish their expenses. No one can wait until July. While I think the Telegraph was right to publish the expenses in the national interest, it cannot be in the national interest to have a national newspaper which is avowedly pro-Conservative, holding the sword of Damocles over our Parliament and the future of our democracy.
I also can’t see in all honesty how Michael Martin can stay. His behaviour has let down the mother of Parliaments, and he will be forever wounded and hounded until he finally cracks. Moreover, I think that all MPs should be asked to repay money which they in their conscience feel has not been used in the spirit of public service, even though they might have been within the rules at the time.
As I’ve written before, MPs should be paid a higher wage, and receive very little extra support except for housing costs and travel outside London. It may not be a popular suggestion at the moment, but the last thing we need at this time is another fudge. The principle of public service in our democracy is an important one and we must be prepared to pay for it. When Chief Executives of quangos get paid £200,000, there is something topsy-turvy in a society which doesn’t remunerate those who bear the responsibility of making our democracy work in practice. Let’s by all means introduce greater performance measures, and let’s build in greater scrutiny of government through enhancing select committee powers and finally reforming the House of Lords. But if we think MPs aren’t worth paying, we will get worthless MPs.
I’m not so sure about the idea, which ConservativeHome are promoting, of allowing constituency parties to reselect MPs who appear to have abused their expenses. In the febrile atmosphere of the moment we could end up losing some good Parliamentarians with experience which will needed over the coming decade in the Labour Party.
On the other hand, there is a part of me which feels that grassroots Labour Party members have been mostly ignored in this debate so far and are rightly angry too that their hard work has been undone by MPs pushing the boundaries of what is morally acceptable in public life.
It might be good for the future of the Party for a new wave of next generation candidates, untainted by this muck and with a pledge to clean up politics, to be elected into Parliament next time round.