Editor's Letter: MPs’ standing has reached a nadir but not all are culpable

The expenses scandal turned us all into sceptics, but we can't blame politicians for everything

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The Independent Online

Morning all. Earlier this week I spent some time with a senior Labour figure. He explained the two big arguments his party needs to make to the British public between now and the next general election. Broadly, one was political, and the other presentational.

The political argument explains what social  democracy means in an era of no money. Despite  the many genuine  disagreements between Labour and the Tories, the difference between their spending plans amounts to little more than Labour saying it’ll take two years longer to clear the deficit.

The last Labour government had lashings of money to spend – partly, by the way, because of the fiscal discipline Ken Clarke showed when he was Chancellor. The next Labour government is going to have very little money to spend, and already has a credibility problem on the economy.

The presentational argument, this MP said, explains that Labour is on the side of the people. The party needs to connect emotionally with people, he said, and show that it is walking hand in hand with them to a brighter tomorrow, rather than walking away from them.

I pointed out that this apparent need to connect had led to a cult of normality, of politicians desperate to prove that they are “just like us”. We used to want great military leaders, or distinguished intellects, in government; now – apparently – we want Ordinary Joe. This can backfire, such as when Ed Miliband was pictured eating a bacon sandwich.

But back came this retort: since the expenses crisis, everything has changed. That scandal altered Britain’s psyche forever, converting our political class from those who lead us to those who cheat us. They have become guilty until proven innocent. When this was followed by a financial crisis which the poor did not cause, but for which they paid, the reputation of MPs sank to rock bottom.

Actually, it can’t have done, because this week it sank even lower. The story of the week in Britain was allegations of paedophilia in Westminster, and an alleged cover-up. If the state was involved in anything like what has been suggested, the shame on our democracy will be profound. But one corollary of this week’s story, which it is unfashionable  to point out, is that being  an MP, already often  thankless, just became even more unbearable.

Journalists are hard-wired to be sceptical about politicians. For H L Mencken, “journalism is to politics as dog is to lamp post”. But most MPs aren’t crooks or paedophiles: they are exhausted, loyal patriots who could get paid better elsewhere. We already have a crisis of representation in this country, with an ever more diverse nation governed by an ever narrower clique. This week, things got worse.

The possibility that Britain’s establishment covered up sexual abuse is horrifying. But for goodness sake don’t tar all of today’s MPs with the same brush.