Tuesday, 2 June 2009

MPs wanted: no human beings need apply

It may not be fashionable to say so, but the news that Jacqui Smith and Alastair Darling are likely to be out of the cabinet as a result of the never-ending expenses saga is a cause for concern rather than rejoicing. I have known both for a long time, and I know both to be able, dedicated, honest people, who came into politics to make a difference and have been talented ministers in their time with the Labour government - I know in particular how much difference Jacqui made on schools policy, and her talents are sorely missed at education these days. But Jacqui has stronger support in Redditch than people think, as her result in 2005 (where there was no swing against Labour) showed and I hope she can keep her seat.

But there is a wider point here. The BBC poll today tells us that half the public thinks that at least half of MPs' are 'corrupt'. And there is no doubt that the last month has been a positive boon for the white van man/saloon bar world view, harnessed by the BNP/UKIP axis no doubt to shocking proportions this Thursday.

In the process, nobody wants to stand up for politicians. Of course, there are a few who have milked the system shamelessly and they deserve whatever they get. (I don't believe that includes either Darling or Smith - as both got caught out primarily because of a 2004 rule change affecting ministers and their designation of second home). Most MPs claimed allowances to which they were told they were entitled, and were not trying to milk the system.

And the Telegraph coverage has now lost all sense of proportion: listening to Frank Cook's apology for a claim (that was rejected) for a £5 church donation ending up in the Fees Office did not suggest someone trying to fiddle the system but an MP whose office has patently made a silly mistake. He did not deserve to see his 26 years in parliament turned into a piece of faux Sunday newspaper outrage. Was this really Sunday's biggest news?

Fewer and fewer people were willing to enter politics for the money, even with the allowances as they were. Most of those across all parties have worked for years, often at considerable personal cost, building up local support to become an MP because they believe in democratic politics and the contribution they might make to their community or causes.

They work incredibly hard in their constituencies dealing with expectations that have grown as their collective reputation has declined. As David Aaronovitch says today, if they are guilty of anything, it is not realising the impact of what John Keane calls 'monitory democracy' - the onslaught of Freedom of Information, the Internet, 24 hour news and new technology. Few of the political giants of the past would stand a day's scrutiny under this system, let alone years of it.

So, there will be changes to the systems of expenses, and there may be some democratic reforms too - though they should be done with cross-party support, not the shameless self-interest of some party leaders. But in the end we still need people to want to become MPs because we need people who are willing to make huge sacrifices to their personal life (and for most, becoming an MP means you have little time for much else) to do so.

What we are now likely to get as a result of the relentless assault of the last month are humourless self-righteous sorts who are, of course, incapable of making the slightest mistake. In such circumstances, the only person who would want to be an MP is someone with no hinterland or human frailties, or an egomaniac extremist who plays to the populist mood.

If people don't think much of our current MPs, just wait until they see what comes next.

This post was picked up by the Local Democracy blog.

1 comment:

Zokko said...

Why doesn't the Torygraph publish a list of those M.P.'s who have not fiddled their expenses? This sorry business is a blatant attempt to manipulate democracy, our version of Florida 2000 and the hanging chads.