Parliament, politicians, porn, pigs, and the people

Scandals involving Jacqui Smith, Tony Macnulty, and Geoff Hoon are just the tip of an iceberg, says Ben Lewis

Against a backdrop of popular outrage over ‘greedy bankers’, there has been a rash of scandals over MPs’ expenses.

Whereas it was the Conservatives who came under fire in January 2008 when it was revealed that Tory MP Derek Conway had been ‘employing’ his university student son as a secretary, now it is the turn of leading ministers to be exposed.

First there was employment and welfare reform minister Tony Macnulty, who claimed the MP’s allowance for a second home despite living just a few miles from both his constituency and Westminster. Then former defence secretary Geoff Hoon was shown to be renting out his supposed ‘second home’ while living for free in a government flat. Ditto Alistair Darling.

Jacqui Smith

Jacqui Smith

Yet nothing could rival the media field day around the controversy known as ‘Masturgate’ – a name which will haunt home secretary Jacqui Smith’s partner and personal secretary, Richard Timney, forever. When Jacqui – a moral authoritarian – was down in London working, Timney ordered two porn films on Television X – a channel owned by former Labour doner Richard ‘Dirty’ Desmond. So far, so boring, one might think. But the problem was that Timney, an adept fiddler of something called MPs’ additional cost allowances on behalf of Ms Smith, which has seen him demand up to £150,000 for ‘expenses’ to kit out an entire house and keep it clean, also deemed it necessary to slap Raw meat 3 and By special request – described by the BBC as “adult movies” – onto her list of claims. After all, what is a few quid on top?

Gordon Brown has labelled this particular case a “personal matter”. Similarly, Tory leader David Cameron has described it as not being an “issue”. Now clearly, what the political elite and their loved ones get their kicks from clearly is a private matter. Indeed, pious as ever, Smith has actually paid back the £10 porn bill to the public purse. But will the rest be repaid?

These examples provide interesting (and in the ‘Masturgate’ case humorous) insights into the corruption of bourgeois politics. Whilst government ministers such as Hoon and Smith have recently postured against ‘excesses in the City’, some of the sleazy practices of our representatives have been exposed for all to see. Leaving aside backdoor arms deals, pacts made on luxury yachts, or the revelation that even the decision on the Iraq war was made without any real debate in cabinet (let alone parliament), the political system is clearly corrupt to the core.

Brown is struggling to save face. He has called for a flat-rate allowance for MPs who live outside London, but this hardly seems to match up to the scale of what has been happening. Moreover, this is unlikely to be the last we will hear of such scandals. Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, is to conclude his investigation into MPs’ expenses by the end of the year.

Whilst we would not sign up to the “Porn ultimatum” headlines of the likes of The Sun, communists must welcome the fact that these scandals have come light. It is an outrage that MPs tried to block the publication of their expenses. Politicians will all agree that the expenses system needs to be ‘simpler and clearer’, in order to ‘restore trust in democracy’. But such platitudes only serve to highlight the sort of superficial reforms that they have in mind. They might abolish the second home allowance and increase scrutiny of expenses. But they would certainly not go along with the radical democratic approach that communists have on this question.

Communists

parliamentWe are quite clear that bourgeois politics is by its very nature corrupt and corrupting. Parliament is designed to incorporate awkward populists, trade union militants and socialistic firebrands. Entangle them in a web of rules and procedures, flatter their egos, invite them to sit on joint committees and quangos, show them that their political opponents are nice chaps, share the same problems and frustrations of being an MP, pay them a small fortune, seduce them through granting exorbitant expenses claims and ensuring that their lifestyle become thoroughly comfortable and middle class. Under these circumstances, those who have entered politics with genuine intention of serving the electorate can either be tamed, bought off or simply turned into greedy pigs.

This is precisely what Marx and Engels were getting at in their arguments in support of elected representatives receiving only the wage of a skilled worker. Lauding the example of the Paris Commune, they argued that this guarded against the “inevitable” danger of the “transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society”.

This is not to imply that we wish elected representatives to live a life of poverty. We recognise that there are many legitimate expenses in day-to-day political practice. But milking them in order to live an existence of privilege on the backs of the masses is simply unacceptable. For example, the £24,000 MPs can claim for their second housing allowance is frequently regarded as an extension of their ‘basic’ pay, which they would be foolish not to claim.

For this reason we do not subscribe to the view that MPs would be less corrupt and more accountable if they were on secondment from their employers. An idea floated by The Times. This would amount to nothing more than MPs dancing to the tune of their bosses. Rupert Murdoch, though, would relish that prospect and the extra power it would give him.

Similarly, those who argue for a huge salary increase, as has Respect’s Yvonne Ridley, to all intents and purposes hanker after going back to the supposed virtues of 17th and 18th century parliamentarism. Wealth and aristocratic status were meant to guarantee political independence and contempt for bribes and other corrupt inducements. In fact there was an orgy of bribe-taking and corruption. Done in the name of serving king and country. Being an MP provided a route to wealth and fortune.

The question of accountability and recallability is inexorably tied up with the question of a workers’ wage. Communists are clear that representatives must be directly accountable to the party they were elected to represent. The way that MPs vote, the interventions they make and the way in which they conduct themselves should be in the first instance a matter for the party. Our MPs would not be there to befuddle and obfuscate in the hope of climbing the greasy political pole, but to be class fighters in the camp of the enemy – ruthlessly exposing the hypocrisy and double-standards of the bourgeoisie and its servants.

But any communist MPs abusing their positions of influence for their own ends would be instantly recalled. Ditto any councillors, European parliament representatives, trade union officials, etc. This must be part of a broader programme of democratic demands for a democratic republic – annual elections, abolition of official secrets, the monarchy and the House of Lords, establishment of a people’s militia to replace the standing army, etc – we would look to subordinate the state bureaucracy to the only force that can counter sleaze and corruption: extreme democracy from below, and working class rule (which means rolling back the market – the ultimate source of corruption).

This is, however, quite a long way from where the left currently is. Whilst Socialist Worker will rightly lambast Jacqui Smith and other MPs for having their “snouts in [the] expenses trough”, when it comes to practical politics the Socialist Workers Party has been more than willing to accommodate left ‘celebrities’ and tailor their ‘principles’ accordingly (April 4).

Labour bureaucracy

Maybe this explains why this article ‘forgets’ to call for elected representatives to be paid the wage of a skilled worker. In Respect, those like George Galloway and Yvonne Ridley contemptuously dismissed the notion of a worker’s wage, not to mention recallability and accountability, and the SWP voting fodder did the bidding of their leadership and voted down the principle as a bloc.

Bob Crow

Bob Crow

Currently still in bed with Galloway, the International Socialist Group has maintained a craven silence during this wave of anger over parliamentary corruption. And, whilst the Socialist Party in England and Wales has a relatively good record in terms of its members standing for public office on a worker’s wage, what will happen now that they have entered into an unholy alliance with Bob Crow and his left nationalist ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ electoral campaign?

It is not just that Crow pockets a whopping £105,679 annually plus expenses, but that this initiative has been set up on the implicit understanding that Crow will not be subjected by the Communist Party of Britain and Peter Taaffe’s SPEW to conferences, motions, elections and other pesky things which may afford a degree of control from below. This calls into question the ‘Yes to Democracy’ part of the campaign’s name, to put it mildly. SPEW’s whole programme – based on the establishment of a Labour Party mark two – necessarily involves special provisions and rights for trade union general secretaries like Crow: those who are called upon to set up a new ‘broad’ workers’ party cannot be expected to be dictated to by the membership.

There is a genuine and understandable contempt for the endemic corruption within the system. Yes, at the moment it might take on rather incoherent forms, but it is incumbent upon revolutionaries to deepen and politicise such sentiments. The demand for instantly recallable representatives on a worker’s wage is one that can win wide support amongst our class.

It is an indictment of our movement that we are not able to openly and consistently fight for this principle in the here and now. In fighting to make working class politics hegemonic we must expose the hollowness of the state’s ‘democracy’ and that of its hangers-on in the trade union bureaucracy by articulating a vision of extreme democracy to be fought for by a mass Communist Party. Tailing the bureaucracy (and passing off its schemes as ‘movements of the class’) is no substitute for mounting a serious challenge that will expose the abuse of power and the system that perpetuates it.

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