Steve Richards: Michael Martin is doomed – but the reform cannot end there

His removal would address none of the more awkward fundamental issues
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The Independent Online

After yesterday's exchanges in the Commons the Speaker is finished. Whether he goes quickly or staggers on, his authority is fatally undermined by the public calls from MPs for him to resign – even if they have come largely from those who had already made their case against him in recent days.

No doubt there will be a cathartic scream of delight around the land as the Speaker squirms. He is the figure who has come to personify the so-called "Parliament of Shame". But I am uneasy about yesterday's dramatic choreography at Westminster.

The dynamics of the expenses saga appeared to change a little too conveniently. Suddenly here were noble, crusading MPs turning on the Speaker who appeared to be culpable for it all. Fleetingly, it was easy to forget that MPs, and not the Speaker, had claimed for moats, plasma TVs and the rest. It was an inadvertent deception. Most MPs know how loathed they are, but it was a deception nonetheless. It all felt too easy, the theatrical calls for him to go, the outraged indignation from some MPs afterwards as they rushed out to the nearby television cameras. The removal of the Speaker would address none of the more awkward fundamental issues that brought about the crisis.

And yet if his head is chopped off that sense of crisis will fade a little even though nothing will have changed. That is what happens in British politics. A scapegoat, a symbolic scalp, reduces the political temperature even though the causes of the heat are still in place. To take one example of many, there was a hysterical clamour for Charles Clarke to resign as Home Secretary two years ago over the handling of foreign prisoners. Very quickly the issue became whether or not Clarke could or should survive and not the foreign prisoners. When Clarke was sacked virtually all interest was lost in the issue of what happened to them. I have no idea of the eventual fate of the foreign prisoners that were supposed to be unaccounted for and yet for a time I was writing of nothing else.

The Speaker is not particularly impressive. I know of other candidates who would be better and have some innovative ideas about what they would do with the post, but that is not really the point.

Scapegoats will get us nowhere unless we, as voters, decide what we want from our politicians. Watching BBC's Question Time last week – often an anti-politics festival these days – with the audience baying for blood was a depressing experience. The audience was understandably angry, but they have responsibilities too in deciding what sort of democracy they want. Instead their fuming anger leads only to the hailing of contradictory objectives, as far as it is possible to measure any objectives at all.

There is a danger after the Calvinistic purge in the coming months that the only ones who will be able to afford to go into politics are the wealthy and those who are sponsored by trade unions. Hands up those in a Question Time audience – or any audience – who want that to happen. But if most voters oppose any attempt to pay politicians the same sort of wages that other equivalent countries regard as acceptable, this will be the outcome. The abuse of allowances became a stealthy alternative to putting the case for pay rises. I am not justifying the abuses. The greedy sense of entitlement was appalling in a depressingly large number of cases. But if we want decent legislators, we better pay them rather than depend on multi-millionaires and those who arrive from the arid world of trade union politics, beholden to their sponsors.

How much should we pay them? That depends partly on what we want them to do. At the moment the more conscientious play the role of social workers in their constituency while scrutinising the government at Westminster. Admittedly, their capacity to scrutinise is limited by the tribal culture, the whipping system and a voting system that delivers big majorities for one party.

But such a role – if performed properly – surely deserves the income of a headteacher or a doctor. After all, if they are up to the task they will be legislating for the funding that provides the pay for teachers and doctors.

Arguably there should be fewer MPs, paid more for what they do. Certainly the first half of the sentence gets big cheers at the moment. But before we cheer too much, all the surveys suggest that most voters support the link between the MP and the constituency. If the constituencies become much bigger that link becomes more tenuous. Local MPs tend to be better known by their voters compared with MEPs, partly because the latter represent much larger areas. So if we want fewer MPs they will have to stop being social workers as the constituencies will be too big. Meanwhile, local authorities, diminished in significance over decades and still in some cases hopelessly detached and incompetent, would have to become more responsive to local needs and have the powers to be so.

Next, voters need to decide whether we really want a bunch of independent MPs of the Martin Bell variety to be elected next year. At the moment a Martin Bell Party would win an overall majority. Now that Esther Rantzen has announced she would like to be an anti-sleaze candidate he has a new ally.

Last August I took part in a packed debate with Bell and Rantzen on a cruise ship off the coast of Norway on the future of British politics. I did not realise at the time I was sharing the stage with a possible future Prime Minister and his Deputy. They would be much better than the BNP but even to raise an unlikely hypothesis highlights the flaws with independents.

We do not know what they stand for on all the big issues that touch voters' lives more directly than the row over expenses. We need the main parties to modernise and change the way they select candidates, but we still depend on the big parties to shape the debates around the economy, Europe and the rest – even in the modern era where nervous leaders blur the differences between them.

Here is an immediate example of the disproportionate madness of the current situation. The chamber was packed for the Speaker's statement yesterday afternoon. Afterwards there was a debate on "Skills in the Recession", looking at how people who lose their jobs can acquire new skills, how Britain can prepare for the opportunities in the global economy once the recession is over and how the training will be paid for. The chamber was empty.

I was one of those who fled so I am not claiming any moral superiority. But I know for sure that the bloodlust will solve little. The MPs' expenses saga raises questions about the voting system, the local responsibilities of MPs, the role of councils, the ways in which parliament holds the government to account and their worth as they do so. More immediately there are questions about how this discredited parliament is regulated until the general election. If the Speaker goes the unresolved issues remain, every single one of them.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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