Another week of revelations of MPs' expenses, another seven days of humiliation for the mother of parliaments. A welter of juicy details involving ornamental duck houses and tree consultants has tumbled forth to join what we already know about massage chairs, moats and bathplugs. The scandal has claimed the scalp of Michael Martin, who becomes the first House of Commons Speaker in three centuries to be ejected from office.
Yet, after a fortnight of bloodshed on the green benches of Westminster, the public reaction to this matter is in danger of getting out of hand. The tone of the debate has become hysterical. What began as a justified critique of MPs' behaviour has degenerated into crude bullying. And the row is now in danger of eroding the democratic health of the nation.
No one disputes that The Daily Telegraph had a marvellous story on its hands when it acquired details of every expense claim made by MPs going back four years. And the newspaper had every right to expose questionable conduct from our parliamentarians. Our democracy functions best when our politicians are kept under close scrutiny by the media. Yet the manner in which this newspaper has been delivering these revelations, day after day, is in danger of doing more harm than good to our body politic.
A drawn-out scandal
The damage the drawn-out nature of the scandal is inflicting in Westminster should not be underestimated. It is right that Mr Martin announced his resignation this week. The Speaker had been at the forefront of efforts to prevent the disclosure of MPs' expenses and was far too compromised a figure to preside over the reforms the Commons so evidently needs.
But elsewhere the impact of the scandal has been far from just. Party leaders have been panicked into imposing summary justice on those MPs fingered by The Daily Telegraph. Worse, as Lord Tebbit pointed out yesterday, there is a perception that the Labour and Tory leaderships are protecting their allies, while throwing the rest to the wolves.
The result is that some of the guilty appear to have been let off the hook, while others have been unfairly punished. The events of recent weeks have left many decent MPs disillusioned with politics. In our rush to shame those MPs who have raided the public purse, we risk demoralising the majority who have done nothing wrong. Let us be clear. Where fraud has been committed it should be met with the full force of the law. And the expenses padding practised by many other MPs have, without a doubt, been deplorable. A number of MPs have treated expenses as allowances, to be claimed in any way possible, rather than funds to help them to carry out their parliamentary duties. But there is a big difference between fraud and the milking of a laxly policed expenses system. Claiming for a mortgage that does not exist cannot reasonably be put in the same category of offence as kitting out a second home with furniture from John Lewis.
Not only unjust, but corrosive
The problem is that the public – along with many in the media – is reacting as if all expense claims are indicative of dishonesty. This is not only unjust, but corrosive. If we expect MPs to divide their work between two distant parts of the country, we have to pay for them to do it. Two reasonable people might disagree about how it should be constituted, but some residential allowance system is necessary. Equally, if we expect MPs to do their job of representing their constituents and holding the Government to account, they need to be given public resources to employ researchers and staff. This costs money. Without these allowances only the independently wealthy will be able to afford to enter Parliament. Those who howl about the corruption of the present system should consider the desirability of returning to the days when politics was the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.
Some have identified a silver lining in this affair: at least the public is now "engaged" in politics. This is naive. The public is engaged with the pillorying of MPs. A public flogging will always attract an audience. But this is not the same as being engaged with politics. MPs' gardening arrangements have certainly fired the public's imagination, but who is debating the issues that are the substance of politics? In fact, the expenses row is squeezing out any debate about serious and pressing issues such as the Government's policies to combat the recession and efforts to curtail runaway climate change.
The hysteria we are witnessing is, in fact, a symptom of the disconnection many feel from the political process. The plans announced by the various party leaders for cleaning up the MPs expenses system – such as preventing second home "flipping" and limiting the range of expenses that can be claimed for – are generally sensible. But the public has regarded this as an exercise in shutting the stable door after the horse's departure. It carries little credibility among those who feel that the political classes will always be a law unto themselves.
Clearly, there remains a considerable job of rebuilding trust in Parliament and our political system. Proponents of constitutional reform have been pressing their case in recent days, urging reform of the House of Lords, a new Bill of Rights and, somewhat counterintuitively, more powers for MPs. Other ideas also worth exploring are fixed-term Parliaments and two term limits for Prime Ministers. But we need to think carefully about the roots of this crisis when considering what reforms are needed. One of the lessons of the past decade is that large majorities tend to encourage a feeling of entitlement among MPs. Electoral reform would help to dispel this mentality; a more proportional voting system would tend to result in tighter Parliaments.
Furthermore, one of the striking features of the public response to this crisis is the vocal support for those who have indicated their willingness to stand as independent candidates at the next election. There is a palpable sense of dissatisfaction with the present choice on offer, a feeling from the public that its ability to register its voice is impeded. A more proportional voting system would relieve some of this pressure. Interestingly, the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, mentioned the 1998 Jenkins review on electoral reform in an interview with this newspaper earlier this week as something that could reconnect politics with the public.
The attraction of the Jenkins proposals is that they would retain the constituency link for MPs while also making the composition of the Commons more representative of how the public votes. With the backing of thoughtful politicians such as Mr Johnson, the Jenkins plan might yet have its day.
The reckoning we need
But we have to realistic. An overhaul of the voting system is not going to be implemented in the coming months, however desirable that would be. And in the absence of such a reform, a general election, in which the public can vote out those MPs who it feels have betrayed its trust, is the next best thing.
While we wait for that reckoning, we ought, collectively, to take a deep breath and rediscover a sense of perspective on recent revelations. Those MPs that have milked the expenses system have, without question, behaved appallingly. But by overreacting to what has taken place, we risk doing our democratic system a double disservice.
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