So, what’s the upshot (so far) of all this brouhaha over MPs’ expenses?
Well, it seems to me that we now know that our elected delegates (not representatives – it’s an important distinction, but it’s also a separate post) display moral behaviour ranging from what would certainly appear to be outright fraud (claiming interest payments on a mortgage that’s already been paid off), to absolute whiter-than-white rectitude, with the majority falling somewhere in the middle – chancers who tried to slip some extra cash into their pockets when they thought no-one was looking. In other words, our MPs have proved themselves to be human, and to be no better and no worse than the rest of us, albeit with greater opportunities for wrongdoing. Some of what has been revealed is serious, but I’m not sure any of it is shocking, or even surprising. Personally I’ve never been inclined to put politicians on any kind of pedestal. As Ian Hislop pointed out on Have I Got News For You, things have even broken down along traditional party lines, with Labour MPs claiming for mock-Tudor beams for their suburban semis, while Conservatives claim for repairs to their moated country estate.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of anger about this, and I think most, if not all, of it is justified. It seems to me that the anger is stemming from four things.
First of all, although I’ve never been inclined to put politicians on a pedestal, I think lots of people have. A lot of traditional left-wingers, in particular, have I think assumed that, even if they didn’t agree with the politics of the ‘new’ Labour party, that at least backbench Labour MPs were still motivated by a sincere interest in public service. Plenty still are, of course, (and in the other parties, too), but I think the expenses revelations about Labour MPs will be the final, final straw for a lot of old-school Labour voters. If I was Gordon Brown, I would be very worried about what this will mean come the next election.
The second cause of the anger, I think, is that MPs of all parties have tended to put themselves on a pedestal. Certainly they seem to have felt able to hold the rest of us to account. It was just a few, short weeks ago that Labour MPs were queuing outside news studio doors to criticise the reckless greed and personal avarice of banking executives – that rings rather hollow now. On the other side of the political spectrum, Conservative MPs have long felt able to criticise what some of them have called an ‘entitlement culture’ among the poor, a belief that the (pitifully small) social security payments they (I) receive are an entitlement not a benefit. I think they may find that one harder to sell when they’ve been found believing that they’re entitled to chandeliers and swimming pools in the second homes they’re supposed to retain only for ‘necessary’ political purposes.
The third cause of the anger is that MPs have allowed themselves to behave in a way that the rest of us would never get away with. I suspect that a majority of the people who work for a living have no opportunity to fiddle their expenses, because they don’t get any. Even amongst those who do, expenses tend to be tightly regulated. You might, if you’re lucky, get away with having a hotel add your bar tab to your restaurant bill and entering the whole lot as ‘Food’ on the invoice, but if you put in a claim for dry-rot repairs to a house you never have to go anywhere near in the course of your job, you’d be turned down flat. In an ordinary business, expenses would be vetted by auditors, and if the auditors refused to sign off on the accounts, penalties would ensue. This is the law – which is to say, it’s a system of regulation that MPs have imposed on other people that they haven’t (until now) been prepared to live under themselves. This is really a key issue, I think. I said at the start of the post that MPs are probably no better and no worse than any other randomly selected group, and I think that’s true, but it’s the fact of self-regulation that’s different. Lots of people would very likely try to get away with what MPs have, but the systems in place would have prevented them.
And, finally, the fourth cause of anger is that MPs have made such a complete hash of things. The major part of the blame for this attaches to Labour MPs, of course, but I would be guilty of lying by omission if I didn’t point out that Labour have, in very many areas, continued Conservative policies. In particular, two very damaging beliefs – that it’s OK for the entire UK economy to be dependent on a single sector (banking and finance), and that the best way to ensure stability and continuing profitability in the financial sector is to regulate as little as possible – can be traced directly back to Thatcherism. Until recently, conservative MPs, rather than criticising the Labour government for their dangerous and risky approach, have instead tended to criticise Labour for not pursuing these policies vigorously enough. Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition have equally hard questions to answer, I think.
As I say, I think a lot of the anger around at the moment is entirely justified. I do also have some sympathy with those who think the affair has been rather over-hyped, however. I was watching a Dispatches documentary about the personal financial rewards enjoyed by Britain’s top (and ex-top) bankers the other day. The unjust rewards from 2000-ish onwards here are counted in hundreds of millions. By contrast, the worst offending of the MPs have received inappropriate expenses money to the tune of tens of thousands. The underlying attitudes are much the same – greed, an inattention to what they should actually be doing, a misplaced sense of entitlement – but in purely financial terms, we should (still) be more angry with the banking executives than we are with the MPs. We should also hold the top bankers more responsible for the recession than we do MPs – politicians were wrong to allow the bankers to do stupid things, but it was still the bankers who actually did the stupid things.
I do understand that there is more concern about MPs because they are using ‘public money’, but I’m not sure of the validity of that distinction. Partly, of course, that’s because a lot of public money has now been ‘invested’ in the banks, to the extent that we own a majority stake in many of them, and even where we don’t we’re underwriting a lot of their credit exposure. But even if that weren’t the case, I don’t think the distinction really holds water. Public money is accrued, basically, by charging people to do various things, by means of the tax system. The profits of the banks, on the other hand, were accrued, basically, by charging people to do various things, by means of the retail banking system. In both the private and public sector, the effect is the same – to diminish the wealth of the private individual. Personally, I feel the public sector is more justified in taking money than the private sector is, because they spend it, for the most part, on things that are essential, not on excessively luxurious lifestyles for a few people. But, in a sense, that’s irrelevant – whoever formally owns the banks, baking executives’ lavish lifestyles are and always were being funded by ordinary people who can’t really afford to lose the money.
It’s certainly galling to hear about an MP building a rather expensive duck island in his garden, then effectively sending the bill to a soldier risking his life in Afghanistan because of a lack of basic equipment, or a nurse working a 12 hour shift on a horrifically understaffed hospital ward. The MPs who have done this sort of thing deserve to be punished for it, if not by the authorities or their parties, then by the electorate. But I don’t, personally, see any difference between the politician who pays for his horse manure with the proceeds of taxes, and the banking executive who pays for his horse manure with the proceeds of the needlessly expensive mortgage the nurse struggles to pay. Both of them are living the highlife at the expense of people who both can’t afford to lose the money, and are more deserving of it.
I understand the anger against MPs, and I share it. I really hope there are a network of independent candidates standing at the next election in every constituency so we have the opportunity, not just to reject the worst-offending party, but to reject the whole sorry edifice of party politics, which has been offering us non-choice and more of the same old shit for at least the last 15 years. But I also hope that we don’t lose sight of the fact that the real damage, the worse exploitation, is being committed by people who aren’t MPs (but frequently offer lucrative non-executive directorships to serving MPs). We need MPs who are not self-serving, self-aggrandising, control-freaks, certainly. But even more than that, we need tough-minded, independent-thinking MPs with the courage and determination to do away with the much worse exploitation and greed that infects the corporate world. It really isn’t MPs who are the most guilty of exploiting us.