I thought I would share an argument I have now had with quite a few people. In it I say it would have been possible to frame the MPs’ expenses saga to make its impact more manageable. Just about everyone I have spoken to disagrees, maintaining that the expenses claims were so intrinsically awful they were bound to be lead to this seemingly endless crisis.
I have said in past posts how I would have advised framing the issue. Something like this:
‘The vast majority of MPs are hard working and public spirited. Most MPs have seen their workload, especially in their constituencies, increase greatly over recent decades – for example, MPs today get four or five times as much correspondence as twenty years ago. Today’s MPs – many more of them women – also take their family responsibilities more seriously which makes living in two places harder to do
‘ But nearly all of us in Westminster have been responsible for allowing a rotten system to develop to deal with the gap between what MPs think they deserve and need to do the job today and what the public and media are willing to tolerate. For that the public deserves an apology from us all. The system has to change and we have to have an honest and open conversation about how we can recruit and retain good quality politicians while recognising politics is something people do to make the world a better place not to become rich.
‘ If any MP has broken the law they will be subject to that law. But it is pointless getting into an argument about whether a duck pond is more or less immoral than a plasma screen TV, whether those who take every penny of their entitlement are better or worse than those who claimed less but for items that seem silly or self indulgent, whether we can ever know the motives of those who may have had reasons for changing the designation of their house but also gained from so doing. Every MP will have to accept the judgement on their actions of their local parties and local constituents – that is democracy’
As I predicted, the Brown and Cameron tactic of selectively dumping on those colleagues whom the Telegraph or the public deem to be the worst offenders may work in the short term but it quickly runs into problems. Whoever Brown reshuffles at the weekend, he is certain to come under the attack that he has used the saga to get rid of dispensable ministers but has turned a blind eye to the misdemeanours of his allies. The apparent intention of Number Ten to brief that the forthcoming election results are ‘a defeat for democracy not for the Labour Party’ will be seen for the opportunism it is.
This is a mess. It has many twists to come and the political leaders are now victims to the next round of revelations (or more precisely the way the Telegraph and the broadcast media choose to spin the next set of revelations). I believe it could have been handled better and diffused more quickly but perhaps, in this, I am alone.
David Cameron’s lengthy Guardian essay about democratic reform is welcome, even if there isn’t much in it that is both new and a concrete commitment. As a long standing supporter of electoral reform, I also supported Alan Johnson’s call this weekend for a referendum on the day of the next General Election – indeed, I advocated exactly this policy in my blog a few days days earlier.
While it is important to debate the rules and procedures of politics I continue to believe that the bigger issue is the content of democratic discourse. My first RSA annual lecture, back in 2007, was about ‘pro-social strategy’. This is what I said:
“The way we do politics not only reflects but reinforces a loss of confidence among citizens and communities about solving problems ourselves. The most disabling aspect of political discourse is the paradox (exploited by the news media) that Government is seen simultaneously as omnipotent and incompetent….
By creating a vibrant debate about common problems, aims and responsibilities, pro-social strategy seeks to reinstate democratic politics as the process by which citizens give permission to their representatives to act on their behalf.
This shift in thinking is not simply about rolling back the state or taking politicians down a peg or two. The implications for government are not so much about its size but as about its ways of working. The implications for politics are not so much about politicians letting go as about citizens taking hold.’ Pro-social politics’ would not be seen in terms of conflict between us (citizens) and them (politicians). Politics would be about us and us and us.
‘Us’ because it would be about what we as citizens want to achieve and what we need to do to achieve it.
‘Us’ because it would be about recognising the different interests, views and resources of different parts of society and accepting the challenge of reconciling these differences rather than simply asserting our own demands and resenting any attempt by politicians to sort it out.
‘Us’ because this would be a process in which we would need to confront more fully the truth that we each of us have our own conflicting interests, views and aims. The apparent incompatibility of our own individual preferences is a growing characteristic of modern policy problems. For example, we want to fly cheaply and protect the planet, to see our children as home-owners but to protect the green spaces around our towns and cities……”
As Ben Page from Ipsos-MORI often says ‘the British public demand Swedish welfare provision on American tax rates’. The real problem with politics is not the expenses claims of MPs, nor even the power of the Executive, it is that we are unable to have a grown up conversation about the challenges which politicians can only resolve if we work with them: notably, public spending restructuring, population ageing and climate change.
We the citizens are stuck in a bad place; increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet willing to govern ourselves. Proposals for reform should be judged by whether they are likely to move us towards a more realistic and responsible democratic discourse.
As if the daily revelations about MPs expenses weren’t enough, the way Gordon Brown and David Cameron have chosen to handle the affair guarantees it will have many more downhill twists. Running scared of the media and seeking political advantage, the leaders have tried to appear uncompromising in their condemnation of MPs accused of misdemeanours, and in their determination to act against wrong-doers.
In the face of what feels increasingly like a lynch mob public mentality, perhaps the leaders had no choice. But their tactics have ensured this story will move into a second and equally uncomfortable phase. This is when the Parties have to explain where and why they are drawing the lines between forgivable misjudgements, unforgivable extravagance or downright fiddling.
As we heard on the Today programme this morning, journalists will be on the look out for the line being drawn less on the basis of the acts committed than on the dispensability of the MP. Moral philosophers may want to think about media training; they will be in great demand to explain why a duck pond is intrinsically more objectionable that a plasma TV or top of the range soft furnishings.
The expenses story was bound to be hugely damaging and to say it could have been handled better is not to suggest it would, or should, have been an easy ride for MPs. But missing has been any narrative through which to confront MPs’ behaviour while resisting the myth that all Parliamentarians are greedy chancers who only ever got into politics to make a fast buck.
As ‘the only person in Britain still defending MPs’ I have previously offered one way of framing the scandal: over broadly the same period as the expenses system has taken up the slack between politicians’ and the public’s view of what our elected representatives are worth, MPs have seen a significant increase in their constituency workload. One measure is their expanding mailbag; MPs get three or four times as many letters (or e-mails) now as a generations ago. The expectations we place on MPs, – for example that each of them staff a full time local office and that each returns every week without fail to their constituency (Roy Jenkins used to go once a month to hold a surgery in the station hotel before heading back to town) – have changed without being understood or discussed, just as has the allowances system. We now need an open and thoughtful debate about what we want from MPs and what it is right to pay and reimburse them.
If our leaders had promoted understanding a bit more and condemnation a bit less they might have been able to draw on a distinction recently described by Michael Sandel. The renowned political philosopher was giving the first of his Reith lectures, recorded on Monday night and due for transmission in June. Sandel is concerned about how we frame public obligations, and particularly the way the criterion of economic efficiency trumps everything. He thinks this risks undermining vital social norms and replacing democratic discourse with crude cost benefit calculation His lecture cited an example beloved of behavioural economists; the Israeli nursery school which sought to stop parents picking up their children late by fining them. The unintended consequence was that many parents saw the fine as a fee and thus felt justified in coming even later.
The Professor offered his own example of this process. He used, he told us, to think of the extra money he had to pay Blockbusters when he returned DVDs late as a fine and something about which he ought to feel slightly guilty. But both he and the shop now saw the extra change as a fee with his decision to hold the DVD for a few extra days as being morally neutral.
This provides a clue as to why long standing MPs with an unblemished record of public service have come to behave like money-grubbing tricksters. The fatal ambiguity about the second home allowance was whether it was a form of compensation (something to which MPs were entitled as long as they could find some grounds) or an out of pocket expenses system from which people can only claim for clearly legitimate extra costs.
This is not an uncommon ambiguity. Take the provision many organizations have for people to claim lunch when they are out of the office. There is no reason why lunch out of town should cost you more than lunch bought at the sandwich shop round the corner from your workplace. But people claim on the implicit grounds that having your lunch bought is some recompense for the wear and tear of travelling.
Many MPs acted very unwisely. Some may have been deliberately dishonest. But I suspect that most simply made a category error – mistaking a provision for out of pocket expenses for an entitlement to compensation.
What it was in MPs’ attitudes and the culture of Parliament that allowed this disastrous error of judgement to take place is important. It is a pity we aren’t debating this rather than succumbing to the stupid and dangerous idea that one of the world’s strongest and cleanest democracies (albeit one that could do with some serious reform) is a den of venality and corruption.
Rarely, I fear, do I say anything worth repeating. Once, when I was asked ‘what is it like to be an only child?’, I answered ‘I don’t know, I haven’t got any brothers or sisters’, which I thought was cute. I have a recollection that some time ago, maybe even in this blog, I said something like this: ’political leadership is the courage and the ability to bring tomorrow into today’. I’m sure I’ll find it was said more elegantly by someone much more distinguished but until then I’ll claim it.
Listening to the economist Robert Shiller speaking at the RSA this morning (he is here again on Thursday at a public event) I was reminded of this idea. Shiller, you will recall, is famous for systematically linking the credit crunch and subsequent recession to what John Maynard Keynes called ‘animal spirits’. Simply put, the idea is that when things are going well we get carried away thinking that the economy will always grow and that we can do away with any constraints on our economic behaviour. Then, in downturns, the opposite occurs, with caution and risk aversion worsening the crisis and hindering recovery.
Professor Shiller has a number of policy solutions to end the current crisis and head off the next. But a recurrent theme coming from the impressive group of people attending this morning’s seminar was that the same psychological frailties he described mean that once the crisis had slipped from our memories, we are likely to dismantle all the measures put in place in its wake (Shiller, by the way, recognises this but thinks overall, crisis by crisis, we do learn and things get better).
This is the link with my bon mot. To avoid future epidemics of irrational exuberance and, more fundamentally still, to get us to support steps that prepare for major predictable risks like population ageing and climate change, we need leaders who can ‘bring tomorrow into today’.
At the heart of the deep failings of our political system is the problem of how to exercise leadership in the modern world. Democratic leadership involves convincing people that their first instincts are not always right (if they were, leadership would presumably be unnecessary) and persuading them to consider both the general good and the requirements of the long term.
Political strategy over the last era has moved between two inadequate way of thinking; either, broadly, that people (by which we mean ‘hard working families’ or some other phrase indicating the exclusion of the mad, bad or different) are right and we should give them what they want, or that people can’t be trusted so we should try to do the right thing surreptitiously while pretending to pander to public prejudice. The first was how it looked under Blair, the second is how it feels under Brown.
The MPs’ allowances system sprang up because even political leaders we associate with an older style (Thatcher and Foot) were unwilling to confront public instincts. They thought it impossible to explain that good governance requires us to pay MPs more so as to recruit and retain talented people in politics and to avoid even honest MPs looking for other, possibly dodgy, ways of supplementing their income. Instead of explaining the long term consequences of paying too little, the allowances system was created to paper over the ever widening cracks between the views of the woman on the Clapham omnibus and her MP.
Over the intervening twenty five years three things have happened. MPs have become harder working – thirty years ago many more MPs were essentially part time, typically combining politics with a career in law or business. For example, there has been an exponential increase in constituency correspondence and woe betide the MP who doesn’t answer it all. Second, Party leaders have continued to insist that MPs must constrain their wages in order to avoid a media fuelled public backlash. Third, the allowances and expenses system has grown to deal with MPs’ sense that they are underpaid and their need to fund the burgeoning workload of their constituency offices (much of which is demanded by national Parties themselves cash-strapped by the lack of state funding and the justifiable nervousness of donors)
Psychology teaches us to notice that the things of which accuse others are often those which we feel most about ourselves. When politicians complain that people don’t trust them the reality is that they don’t trust the people. And when politicians say the need is to empower the public they really wish the public would empower them to be brave and make wise decisions.
These are the kinds of question we should now be discussing. They link the political crisis with the economic crisis and the need for a post deferential politics of social responsibility and the long term. Somehow I don’t think capping MPs second home mortgage payments quite gets to the point.
Now we have decided that most, if not all, MPs are money grubbing fraudsters who only ever got into politics so they could buy themselves soft furnishings from John Lewis subsidised from the public purse it is time for some proper upstanding citizens to put themselves forward. It may be that, as Norman Tebbit advocates, we will abandon the constraints of a system dominated by major parties in favour of the much more interesting niche systems of Israel, Italy or India. But in case Parties do persist, I thought it might be helpful to explain what, in my experience, is involved in becoming a Labour MP.
• You will be expected to have been a Party member for several years, probably at least a decade
• To demonstrate your commitment and to raise your profile among other activists you will throughout those years canvass door to door most weekends and several nights a week during election campaigns (including council by-elections)
• Throughout the decade-plus of activism, Committee and other meetings will on average take up two or three nights a week
• You will be expected to take on a range of elected offices in the local Party ranging from Constituency secretary to branch Treasurer. You will almost certainly need to give up a room in your house for the piles of canvass returns, committee minutes, leaflets that will quickly accrete.
(By the way, you don’t get paid for any of this.)
• You will have to be nice to everyone and find a way of keeping in with as many different Party factions as you can, after all you will need the votes to get selected
• You will have to be very careful with your private life as this will come under greater scrutiny as you climb the greasy pole
• You may have stood for the local authority or even got elected, which will take up your other evenings (and don’t hope to get rich on councillors’ allowances)
• You will even now find it very hard to find a winnable seat. In fact, as you go from selection to selection you will come across people who have been trying unsuccessfully for years, many of whom will have given up months or even years to stand in totally unwinnable seats
• However hard you work don’t forget that if your Party leadership is unpopular you may not win or you may be thrown out at the next election (and in case your real ambition is to become a Cabinet minister it’s as well to know that even f you do get elected the chance of this happening is about 1 in 20).
But now, after the decade plus of activity, after the thousands of hours of unpaid activism, now at last you reach your goal – access to the MPs’ allowances system. Now it’s is all worth while – enjoy.
(Of course, some MPs – but not that many – get a fast track into Parliament but these tend to be the kind of people who take a pay cut when they get elected.)
From what I can tell, out of 646 MPs, up to 100 have been claiming every penny they could, about 50 have been claiming for things which might have been within the letter of the rules but were clearly inappropriate, and maybe a handful will find themselves justifiably accused of deliberately abusing the rules or making fraudulent claims.
It s a terrible picture and who knows what damage it will do. I don’t defend MPs or point out how hard it can be to become one because I am trying to excuse the bad cases; I have long been a vocal critic of our political culture. But the argument now being peddled by almost the whole media that our entire political system is racked by corruption, and that MPs are by definition morally bankrupt, must be countered. The allowances system developed because, even thirty years ago, under Margaret Thatcher, there was a gap between what independent experts thought MPs should be paid and what the public was willing to tolerate. The allowances system was the ‘clumsy solution’ to this dilemma and a generation of Governments, Leaders of the House and Speakers failed to act as that system grew out of control.
Of course we need a debate about the kind of politics and politicians we need and want, but is throwing a bucket of manure over the whole of Parliament really the best way to start?