They still don't understand. After all the furore over expenses, the debacle of the European votes and the bathetic internal power struggle, what do we get as Gordon Brown and his new Cabinet's first big idea to get the government moving again? Why, a half-baked statement of the intention vaguely to reform the constitution.
It's not only pathetic in terms of the poverty of its aspiration and the wooliness of its thinking. It is a piece of almost breathtaking hypocrisy given what the government has actually been up to. The Prime Minister talked yesterday of House of Lords reform as a first step to fundamental change. But what has he done? He has parachuted yet more acolytes into the House of Lords to serve as ministers and policy tsars, increased the power and scope of his second-in-command, Lord Mandelson, and put another Labour peer, Lord Adonis, in charge of transport. Far from giving MPs more authority to hold the executive to account, he has actually decreased their reach in three of the key areas of policy concern. Far from moving the Government into the 21st century, he is actually moving it back to the 18th.
The same sense of deceit clouded almost everything he said. He talked of giving local constituents more control of MPs, while setting up a star chamber on expenses which does the opposite – as the case of Ian Gibson in Norfolk has shown. He talked yesterday of giving MPs a wider role in choosing committee chairmen, initiating legislation and so on, when his every action in this crisis has been to reimpose discipline on the party and bring policy under tighter central command.
He proffered a "national debate" on a written constitution and a change to the electoral system, but put it all off into the future without a hint of what kind of voting changes he had in mind or even what final shape he wanted for the House of Lords. He announced – or rather re-announced – a new regime of independent scrutiny of parliamentary expenses, making it sound as if it was some great government initiative while all the time knowing that reform in this area is the product of consensual agreement between all parties.
In other words, what we had yesterday was a Prime Minister up to all his old tricks of combining a high moral tone with the promise of endless "measures" while actually behaving as an old-fashioned machine politician, bent on his own survival.
The usual answer to this is a resigned shrug of "that's the way it's always been, why expect any different?" And I accept that there is very little different in Gordon Brown's approach to "Stalinist" control, of spinning and empty rhetoric, from many of his predecessors. In his case one might have hoped better from a man whom I still believe genuinely thinks he is in politics to change things for the better. But the question he poses, the question which this new, "revitalised" cabinet begs, is whether doing things the old way is going to work in a post-expenses world.
It's not a matter of whether the Prime Minister is going to learn from experience and listen to his Cabinet colleagues more, it is whether the traditional approach to politics has become too narrow and self-obsessed to survive aas it is.
Gordon Brown spoke grandly yesterday of the need for change to re-establish trust in parliament and politics and he declared that the vast majority of MPs "are in politics not for what they can get but for what they can give". Maybe he is right, but that is not what the public believes. The anger that erupted over the MPs' expenses wasn't because people were shocked that MPs could get up to such things. It was because the public already believe – in opinion poll after opinion poll – that MPs are only in politics for their own good. The exposure of the claims simply confirmed what they had always assumed. The anger came because it provided such clear evidence of their worst suspicions and because it gave the public a verbal handle with which to beat the despised breed.
What has happened since the scandal broke has only reinforced these perceptions. We've had tough statements from party leaders and some pretty brutal – and, I would consider, improper – sackings, but we're still faced with the extraordinary sight of MPs admitting guilt and saying that they will stand down, but also seemingly happily prepared to go on as tainted representatives until a general election. It may suit their own and their parties' interests, but it is hardly becoming to the public.
If you really wanted to show that politics had changed for the better, how do you explain Labour Party's abortive coup? It wasn't about principle, it wasn't even about the clash of competing egos ( which the public would probably have understood), it was simply about MPs' fears for their seats. If the coup failed it wasn't only because of the pusillanimity of the rebels, it was largely because, faced with almost certain wipeout if an early election was called, the majority of MPs opted to duck behind the parapets and wait in the hope of better times ahead.
The new Cabinet is no different. They all talk about the need to restore the faith of the public and to come out with a "new vision". And no doubt they mean it. But examine the words and it is all pitched not at the voter but at fellow members of the party. The public is taken as some amorphous mass out there. What really concerns ministers is the party and how they can position themselves should a leadership contest take place at party conference time or after the electoral slaughter they assume is in the offing.
If politicians are really going to reconnect with the public and cleanse the system – and there is always the argument that, given time, politics will return to normal as if nothing had happened – they are going to have at least to look as if they are starting afresh. It's no good talking of parliamentary reform. The only change which will matter is real, hard practical change. And that means fixed terms, a fairer voting system, real devolution of power and a genuine local choice of representatives.
It also means – and this applies especially to the Milibands, Jowells and others setting out their stalls for a revived Labour party – talking to, rather than at, the voter. So far the public is only being mentioned as an aid to whatever line politicians are trying to take. If I were Brown and his colleagues I'd forget the rhetoric, put aside false admissions of humility and just come out and say what it is that you want from the future and from us.Reuse content