Steve Richards: This latest scandal should provoke a debate about the role – and financing – of politicians

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Not surprisingly, the MP Derek Conway and his generously rewarded family command the headlines. Conway's sons must have had a ball at university picking up pay and bonuses from their father's parliamentary allowance as they frolicked miles away from Westminster. Cash for no work is a more clear-cut political scandal than the so-called cash-for-honours affair and the allegations whirling around various candidates of Labour's deputy leadership campaign, a contest that has got far more attention since it ended.

Even so it is too easy and dangerous to reach the conclusion that "they are all at it" as a journalist friend of mine put it to me when he heard about Conway. That is quite a leap.

There is a very easy column to write about how there is a pampered community, known as the Westminster Village, that is cut off from the real world, inhabited by a bunch of corrupt incompetents. I could write it in ten minutes. Probably I would get lots of emails congratulating me for being courageous if I did so, plaudits for taking on the powerful. In reality it is the easy hit, the fashion of our times, and anyway few of the targets have much power which is part of the problem.

The other cliché is that its inhabitants are "cut off from the real world", whatever that is supposed to be. But the MPs' weekend surgeries, often an informal branch of social services, mean that most of them are more in touch than their tormentors from outside the mythical village.

Thankfully the Conway saga has other more illuminating lessons about the erratically eccentric way we choose to finance politics and on the increasingly ambiguous status of MPs. First, it is obvious that to prevent Conway-style abuses, the rules must be enforced. This should not be quite as monumentally challenging as some have suggested.

There are enough independent bodies watching over MPs these days. One or all of them should be capable of monitoring who works for them and whether they really do carry out any labours on behalf of those we elect. In order to restore the confidence of an increasingly disillusioned electorate it might well be necessary to bar partners and relatives from working for MPs, a simple move that would guarantee no more Conways.

There is also a case for looking more widely at the role of those we elect, of being tough on dodgy MPs and tough on the causes of dodgy MPs. Most MPs no longer have other jobs as many used to do. Yet as politics becomes more of a full-time vocation the backbencher has declining powers and status.

Several years ago the former Conservative MP, Matthew Parris, wrote a richly revealing column about the strange clashing experience of being deified at weekends in the constituency and then treated as anonymous lobby fodder during the week at Westminster. He wrote that particular column in the 1990s when MPs could assert relatively more power and influence if they chose to do so. Ask John Major, whose fragile government tottered on the edge as a result of mutinous backbenchers.

Now they have less sway under Labour's mighty majorities. Perhaps in their futile powerlessness, their lack of alternative careers, the thoughts of a few of them turn to making some more money out of it all, taking risks with the rules as they do so.

That is not an excuse or an explanation for Conway's misdeeds. Conway always came across as entirely fulfilled, his energies more than taken up in scheming for his friends and against his enemies. His combustible mix of absolute loyalty and relentless vindictiveness exploded in relation to Iain Duncan Smith who he never forgave for rebelling against the Major government. I remember him telling me with some glee the weekend after IDS became leader that he would not survive for long in such an exalted post. He would make sure of that.

In a minor way Conway showed that an MP could still sway events from behind the scenes, evidently enjoying himself too much as he did so. He was funny and self-deprecating, but then he had quite a lot to laugh about and now he has a mountain of material for self-deprecation.

But Conway's fun-loving lifestyle is not an argument for depriving MPs of allowances. Because some MPs struggle to find a defining purpose and a few of them lapse into abusing the system there is no case for turning them all into pathetic figures sharing a shabby old photocopier in the corner of a decaying room.

As well as reviewing the role and purpose of MPs, which incidentally should lead to fewer in number, there is a need for a much wider debate about how we pay for politics, one that goes beyond the funding of parties. At the moment MPs' allowances are fairly generous, but other areas of British politics are peculiarly under-resourced.

Those who go into 10 Downing Street from the outside are still taken aback by the limited resources available to a Prime Minister. When a senior figure at the BBC, Bill Bush, went to work for Tony Blair he could not believe that the computer system in Downing Street was far more primitive than the one at his previous employers. This was a time when Downing Street was being portrayed as a mighty empire running everything.

Visitors from abroad are sometimes surprised, when asked to meet Prime Ministerial advisers, to face one or two individuals in a sort of living room in Downing Street rather than an entire department. Even the separate rows over party funding and campaign financing illustrate the puny scale of the funding for politics here compared with the millions currently being spent in the US.

The career of the Scottish Labour leader, Wendy Alexander, is supposedly hanging by a thread because of a donation of around £900. A concern for the future of vibrant politics is that some of the donations are so small, not that they are so big.

The Conway revelations make it less likely that taxpayers will be willing to fund political parties. But the over-excited adventures of Yates of the Yard in relation to various funding allegations make it improbable that donors will come forward. So how are we going to pay for politics?

Labour MPs are relieved that the focus has switched to the Tories after their seemingly endless nightmare. Their relief will be short lived as each story serves to contaminate politics rather than a particular party. Gordon Brown entered Downing Street determined to restore trust in the government, an absurdly ambitious objective. Now political leaders as a whole face disillusionment.

It will take some bold measures to restore a degree of trust, but also a grown-up debate among voters about whether or not they want to live in a democracy. If they do, they will have to pay for it.

s.richards@independentco.uk

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