Frank Field: MPs and voters... war is just beginning

A failure of political leadership compounds a dismal state of affairs over expenses
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The Independent Online

To believe that the Legg Inquiry would draw a line under the expenses fiasco must rank as one of the Prime Minister's most fatuous judgements. The most junior observer of the parliamentary scene knows that this saga is going to run right up to the General Election campaign. Worse still, it will continue to ricochet into the new Parliament.

The Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, asked why his government was so regularly destabilised, remarked, "Events dear boy, events". The pathway between now and the general election is strewn with such expenses events.

Let's first take the Legg Inquiry. MPs have until Monday to question Sir Thomas Legg's conclusions. Some MPs are being asked to repay money because of arbitrary decisions which he has made retrospectively. Equally important are the many factual errors in Sir Thomas's auditing.

Legg will then send his report to the Commons Members' Estimate Committee, and those MPs who still feel aggrieved are likely to try and make representations to the Committee. That will only add to the series of grandstanding events.

Then, little appreciated, will be the reports of the Standard and Privileges Committee that is inquiring into some of the worst abuses. The Committee will need to produce a report, like they have done with Tony McNulty and Jacqui Smith, every couple of weeks if its backlog of cases is to be cleared before the general election.

Hard on the heels of the initial Legg findings comes the Kelly report on the future of MPs' expenses. Sir Christopher will publish his report on Wednesday – the eve of the gunpowder plot's anniversary. Sir Christopher has been schooled in what public service is about rising to the near apex of the civil service. Yet if the official leaks are an accurate guide of what is to come on Wednesday, Kelly will make it even more difficult to live a public life, split between Westminster and our constituencies.

Much more important, Kelly is unlikely to face the fundamental non-alignment of MPs' pay: where MPs believe they should be placed in the salary hierarchy and where, at the moment, most of our voters wish to place us. This is where the root of voters' incomprehension and anger lies.

Back in the early 1960s the sociologist W C Runciman wrote a seminal work entitled "Relative Deprivation and Social Justice". Runciman wanted to explain why, when some people were so very rich, it was that the vast majority of us made so few claims.

Runciman explained this paradox by bringing into play the idea of the "notch group" – the social group that are placed just above our own status. It was to this group which all of us made reference when considering whether other people's circumstances were fair or not. People did not look towards the top when making a judgement on the fairness or otherwise of our rewards hierarchy.

The media's unprecedented and sustained campaign against the appalling abuses by MPs of their expenses has shifted Runciman's "notch group". Now our rewards are firmly in the gaze of our constituents. They don't like what they see.

The distribution of income in this country is such that there is a huge tail towards the bottom end. And most of our constituents find themselves earning below and often well below the mean income. Viewed from where our constituents stand in the economic hierarchy, we as MPs have far too much of the cake.

The position looks very different if one is standing in the shoes of an MP. Most MPs are educated to inherit a middle-class job – their notch group are senior teachers, doctors, police officers, lawyers or journalists. MPs see their income in relation, to their friends and acquaintances who are similarly educated and who are part of the minority of the population with incomes above, and often well above, the mean.

The source of the new conflict will be between how MPs evaluate their worth and where many of our constituents place us when they undertake a similar analysis. MPs feel hard done by in that their rewards have not kept pace with other professional groups to which they naturally make a comparison.

In stark contrast is the judgement of our constituents, many of whom budget brilliantly on a household income of a third of what MPs take home. Kelly, it appears, will do nothing whatsoever to begin to reconcile what apparently are two irreconcilable positions.

Not to begin to reconcile them will result in continual turf warfare between voters and MPs stretching away into the far distant future. The results will be serious and go way beyond the personal sense of humiliation that most MPs now feel.

This dismal state of affairs is compounded by a total failure of political leadership. David Cameron has mesmerised the Prime Minister over this issue. Anything Cameron does Brown tries to do better. Each time he fails miserably.

The Commons is also in desperate need of an exceptional Speaker who has the courage to stand up to the hue and cry of the media. This crisis is now deeply damaging our democracy. Just as Speaker Lenthall defined his role in facing down the Monarch, so we now need a Speaker who has the courage, judgment and ability to be able to defend in the media the role of MPs while condemning the appalling and indefensible excesses of some.

Furthermore, who amongst the next generation, with the range of qualities necessary to be a good MP, is going to step into this political maelstrom? Here, beyond the thrill of baiting MPs, lies the deadly threat to our democracy.

Political parties will always be able to attract more than enough placemen. But democracy can only prosper in the longer run if some of the best of each generation take public office. As the current debate charges on, devouring an increasing number of souls on its way, my guess is that the quality of MPs will have fallen even lower when the public marks the next House of Commons.

Frank Field is Labour MP for Birkenhead;