Margareta Pagano: McBride and friends are why I could not stand as an MP

The people I talk to aren’t apathetic about politics – they are apoplectic
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The Independent Online

A few years ago I seriously considered becoming an MP. This wasn't a revelatory moment, more an ambition toyed with since school days – when an inspirational history teacher made being an MP seem such a noble pursuit as he described the struggles for universal suffrage.

When I shared this plan with my family over breakfast, they reacted with disbelief, with horror and finally anger. My husband threatened a walk-out, arguing that anyone who even wanted to be a politician had megalomaniac tendencies. My children were horrified at the idea that they might be dragged into the spotlight. Without exception, friends questioned my sanity, insisting that it would be impossible to remain idealistic and principled and to avoid becoming corrupted by the mendacity of our governing elite.

But it was my political acquaintances, several MPs among them, who challenged me most; they believed the whip system would compromise my independence and principles, preventing my career advancement. And if I didn't toe the party line, I would end up demoralised on the back benches.

Encouraging stuff. I'm not sure whether anyone even bothered at this stage to check out which party I was hoping to stand for, the assumption being they were all as bad as each other. As you might imagine, my political ambition was tucked away as quietly as it had emerged. I barely considered it again; that is, until today. My friends and family were right, and we can all see why.

This weekend's scandalous revelation that Gordon Brown's most senior aide, Damian McBride, has been compiling secret dossiers for a smear campaign against the Conservative leader and other MPs proves just how low our politicians have sunk.

It is no surprise at all that our distaste for our political elite gets worse by the day, as they continue to prove to us that it is they who have no respect for us.

What is perhaps most shocking of all is how few people will be surprised by these smears, as this is what they come to expect of government.

Collecting tittle-tattle about sexual diseases or embarrassing photographs is easier, isn't it, than cross-party debates on how we fund the biggest budget deficit in British history at the forthcoming Budget?

After the endless drip-drip of how MPs fiddle and confect their expenses and the disgraceful witch-hunt against Tory MP Damian Green, I can't see how this Government can ever restore respect without a very real and serious overhaul of our political process. It's a foolish, and dangerous, government which patronises its electorate; we have not forgotten that Brown came to high office (without, of course, being elected) preaching the moral high ground, promising that the days of Tony Blair's spinning machine were over. Now, Brown's own spinning machine has spun itself into oblivion.

What is notable in all these cases is that the media, traditionally blamed for impoverishing the reputation of politics and politicians, is playing – for once – a back-seat role.

Many of the leaks now emerging, whether in the expenses or the McBride scandal, have come from civil servants deeply worried about the way the politicians are politicising our democracy to their own ends.

But the politicians have only themselves to blame. The problem for MPs and ministers is that they themselves have denigrated their own reputations by their poor behaviour.

Commentators like to say that the public is less interested today in politics than it used to be, that our celebrity culture has overtaken our appetite for the vigorous debate that once made our town halls, and our Parliament, the envy of aspiring democrats around the world.

I don't believe this for a moment. The people I talk to aren't apathetic, but they are apoplectic about what they see as the cynicism of our politicians. They are the cynics, not us. What else explains Gordon Brown's peculiar justification, during the G20 summit, that he was too busy saving the world to worry about MPs' expenses, thereby dismissing the affair as a minor irritant?

He should worry. That politicians, of all parties, are exploiting their public positions for private advantage goes to the root of our distaste for those who govern us.

Every single case of fiddling – from Tony McNulty's second home to Jacqui Smith's blue films and barbecues – shows that they have no regard for our respect. It is in our name that they carry out their duties, and it is at our expense that they make mistakes.

We are the patrons of their follies: it really is as simple as that. The expenses fiasco also shows that strict parliamentary rules on allowances are not enough – because there is always a technical way around them – nor do they guarantee good behaviour.

Quite rightly, the public feels cheated. We know politicians' behaviour is unacceptable, but now we need to look at how to fix it.

By failing to right their wrongs, and grasp their failings, they are dooming themselves and us. An all-party committee should be set up immediately, perhaps with outside observers, to come up with a proper way of paying MPs a decent salary. It's hardly asking the earth to come up with an appropriate pay level, linking it to jobs such as doctors or head teachers – around say £80,000 would be sensible.

Allowances should be banned completely for second homes. Instead, MPs should be allowed to claim expenses for overnight stays, just like we all do, in fact, if we have to travel on business.

We also need clarity about what we really want out of MPs, and also the local government structure which sits behind them. Are there too many MPs? Should there be an age threshold – say 40 years old – so that our politicians have proper experience of life outside Westminster ? Do we really need all the complex layers of Regional Development Authorities, and County, District and Parish Councils, which all have such different powers over planning, waste, the environment and so on? These are just some of the questions we should be asking if we want to restore faith in our democratic process.

My generation has clearly lost faith in our political system. However, we must hope that, if we can make the much needed reforms, confidence in Westminster can be restored. When I asked my 14-year-old son yesterday what he thought of the latest smear campaign, he replied that we must be careful not to stereotype all our politicians, that there are many who do enter politics with good intentions. "You never know," he said, "I might want to be an MP one day."