Gordon Brown was right to say that the Norwich North by-election was unique, but the main reason for that distinction is that it was a by-election which should never have happened.
It was the product of a chaotic absence of any clear guiding principles as Parliament tried to deal with MPs' expenses. Consequently Gordon Brown and David Cameron did nothing to arrest the corrosive direction of events. They ran in front of the wind of Daily Telegraph vigilantism and proclaimed their own integrity by denigrating that of others. And they abandoned any concept of fairness in the way they treated their own MPs, picking some for excoriation whilst tolerating others.
It was this arbitrary approach which led directly to the by-election as the Prime Minister vilified Ian Gibson, but not on any fair basis. This incompetent and unjust style has deeply damaged democratic politics. Moreover the appalling result in Norwich illustrates the important political side-effect that Labour, as the governing party, has been injured worst of all.
The main reason for the Norwich result was that voters there were quite clear that it was for them, not the Labour leadership, to decide whether or not Ian Gibson remained their MP. Ian is widely respected for his constituency work and his commitment to Norwich. These voters in no way excuse malpractice on expenses – far from it – but they find it hard to believe that Ian was motivated by greed and thought, as I do, that Labour ended his political career for cynical reasons with no due process.
Labour correctly steered well clear of making the by-election a referendum on Gordon Brown's leadership. Though the very low overall standing of the Party was a serious handicap the principal verdict of the by-election was on Labour's appalling handling of the expenses issue.
The expenses catastrophe was not an Act of God. It was widely predicted and much of it could have been avoided. Unpleasant though it was the Daily Telegraph scoop offered one service in that it brought matters to a head, though its reporting was scurrilous and politically targeted and motivated.
Our response needed, and now needs, to be transparent, comprehensive, fair and rapid. It needs to be genuinely all-Party, to respect the role and responsibilities of Members of Parliament and to punish rigorously those who have transgressed the rules or the law.
Transparency was essential. In early May I, and others, urged the Speaker to publish immediately and in full the unredacted material. On advice from officials concerned with Data Protection he refused. This decision precipitated over 2 months of unremitting and generally uncontested public abuse which has damaged Parliament far worse than early publication would have.
Publication of the claims revealed manifest failures in the system. MPs should have addressed these weaknesses far earlier but did not. I therefore argued to the Prime Minister in April that we needed a comprehensive review covering pay, second jobs, pensions and allowances. This review should have been conducted by senior MPs from all parties and Parliamentary agreement achieved by now. Instead we have had a piecemeal and incoherent combination of incompetent new legislation, Parliamentary resolutions, and various formal enquiries. This will lead to continuing debilitating controversy between now and Christmas.
The conduct of individual MPs, with widely varying personal circumstances has to be considered fairly. The police have to consider potential breaches of the law. The system has to be explained openly and run competently. This was impossible to do with rules which changed annually, or more frequently, for example in defining what is or is not the 'main' home, (when many MPs, particularly with children, spend about half their life in London and half in the constituency).
And decisions need to be taken far more rapidly. It is now more than three months since the Prime Minister's April statement to Parliament on the subject and months lie ahead before a new system is put in place. Police and Parliamentary hearings about past alleged offences drag on in a way which will continue to invite contempt for the political process. The challenge for Labour now is to establish a positive agenda and end the sequence of damaging injuries which afflict us.
Our approach to the genuine shock felt by millions of people throughout the country must be to be transparent, comprehensive, speedy and above all fair.
Charles Clarke is a former Home Secretary and MP for Norwich South
Norwich by-election: The results
*Chloe Smith (Con): 13,591 (39.5%)
*Chris Ostrowski (Lab): 6,243 (18.2%)
*April Pond (Lib Dem): 4,803 (14%)
*Glenn Tingle (Ukip): 4,068 (11.8%)
*Rupert Read (Green): 3,350 (9.7%)
*Others: 2,322 (6.8%)
Turnout 34,377 (45.76%)Reuse content