Steve Richards: A catastrophe that leaves our democracy in crisis


Sunday 23 October 2011 01:40

This is a dangerous moment for parliamentary democracy. The saga over MPs' expenses is the most explosively accessible political story to have erupted for years.

I doubt if there is a voter in the land who does not have a view on it. Most of them will be horrified. Debates on the economy are much more significant and impact on our lives in a way that the expenses of MPs do not, but few voters follow detailed political exchanges over economic policy. A story involving receipts, houses, lavish hotels, cleaners, bath plugs and much more has a grisly simplicity that will fuel the existing anti-politics orthodoxy. It looks terrible. It looks even worse in the midst of a recession.

The key question is whether it is as bad as it looks. If the answer is an unqualified "Yes", something utterly bizarre has happened. At the last election, by some sinister coincidence we elected four or five hundred crooks to represent us. Obviously that is not the case. Most people do not go into politics to make money and quite a lot of them do so for honourable motives.

The explanation for what really happened is fairly straightforward. Some MPs became recklessly complacent about how they exploited the expenses system, almost as an alternative source of income. At the same time, others were excessively diligent in making sure they extracted every single penny. The claims for rusks and bath plugs highlight a hunger for reimbursements as excessive as some dextrous manoeuvring over second homes.

Evidently quite a lot of MPs concluded that they could not make a public case for higher pay, so expenses were a form of compensation. Some were also worried about losing their seats and being without a regular income. The parliamentary authorities encouraged the culture of claiming. Indiscriminate expenses became a discreet way of boosting the income of those in a precarious vocation and one in which the public would not tolerate significant pay rises. The rules were lax, in some cases absurd, and lacked effective scrutiny.

Some of the revelations will defy explanation, let alone justification, and expose an almost darkly comical greed and possibly fraud. The senior Labour MP Tony Wright told me yesterday that he would not be surprised if some of his parliamentary colleagues were forced to resign. Many MPs will be quaking this weekend.

But quite a lot of the revelations will not be as dreadful as they seem. Perhaps Gordon Brown's cleaning bill will undermine his reputation as a leader uninterested in wealth, but I suspect his personal expenses are the least of his current problems and will not greatly add to the woes distinctly associated with his leadership. None of it compares with the multimillion-pound scandals that have afflicted politics in several other equivalent countries.

The expenses row as a whole, though, will have political consequences. The demeaning sequence on TV screens yesterday in which politicians lined up to explain their behaviour, like naughty children caught with their hands in the till, conveyed a terrible and misleading image of what most of them are like.

In the short term, the leaders of the BNP must be rubbing their hands with glee. Whenever there is disillusionment with mainstream politics, minority parties attract more votes. The expenses drama is a prelude to next month's European and local elections. It will impact on turnout and make it easier for extreme parties to make their anti-politics pitch. If there is a series of by-elections they too will fuel the turbulence of what was already going to be a stormy summer.

I suspect the longer-term consequences will be minimal. The main parties will all be troubled by the revelations, the equivalent of taking part in a terrible political nil-nil draw. But in the end the goalless encounter is over a minor issue. The next election will still be decided above all on policies relating to the economy and public services, those that shape voters' lives. Elections always are. Between now and the election we will hear a lot of that silly cliché associated with politics: "They are all in it for themselves." But we always hear that cliché in the build-up to elections.

The tragedy about this avoidable catastrophe is that, for once, the anti-politics voters will have the ammunition to make their point. More prominent politicians will line up in front of the camera this weekend and next week to explain their conduct. The choreography of the next few days will be as grim as it was yesterday. But remember that we put them there and have the right to kick them out at the next election.

Parliamentary democracy is in crisis this weekend. The alternative would be much, much worse. They need to get a new system in place as a matter of urgency and no longer hide in the darkness of a world that escapes rigorous independent regulation.

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