James Turley brings down some false hares raised during the crisis over MPs’ scams
If any MP had entertained the naive hope that the expenses crisis was going to blow over with a few well chosen platitudes, they have now been decisively disappointed.
On May 19, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, announced his resignation. This marks the first time in three centuries that a speaker has been forced from office – and forced he certainly was, with ever more MPs clamouring for his head through a vote of no confidence.
The loss of Martin – who has been in the office for long enough that he can be plausibly scapegoated for overseeing the rife corruption, and visibly incompetent enough over the past few days to qualify for a firm push over the cliff – is, symbolically speaking, the lowest point so far in a political crisis which has left Westminster reeling. The scale of the corruption is shocking in both directions – that is, from the £2,000 claim from Tory Douglas Hogg to clean the moat of his country house to demands to cover payments for yoghurts, light bulbs and biscuits. Two Labour MPs have been stripped of the whip for claiming for mortgage repayments after their loans had been fully repaid. One, David Chaytor, apologised for having made an “unforgivable error” – though it is nakedly implausible that he simply had not noticed the ‘inconsistency’.
The case of Ben Chapman is more revealing. He systematically overclaimed mortgage interest on his second home starting in 2002. The Daily Telegraph demonstrated that this had apparently been agreed with the Commons fees office, with the strong implication that the office had helped MPs to play the system. At the time of writing, Chapman refuses to pay back any of the money he received in this manner – some £15,000 – after all, “it’s all something that was agreed a long time ago” (May 18).
All this has put Gordon Brown on the spot – he has pledged to suspend all Labour MPs in breach of the rules, but this obviously does not include the likes of Chapman (and expert fiddler Hazel Blears), who acted within them. The PM is caught in a real dilemma here: either he fires Chapman regardless, and looks opportunistic; or he leaves him go, and looks pharisaic in his defence of completely discredited rules.
Indeed, any kind of firm grasp of the situation has been beyond Brown. It was less than a month ago that his idea for a £150-per-day attendance fee for MPs was met with widespread ridicule (what, one wonders, is the £64,000 salary for?), and scuppered by lack of support in the Commons. After the Telegraph’s revelations broke, he was outmanoeuvred by an on-form David Cameron – Brown’s first serious proposal to deal with the system was to refer it to the Committee For Standards In Public Life, a quango which is overseen in part by an MP nominated by each main party. Left blogger Mick Hall points out that Alun Michael – Labour’s representative – claimed £149,518 expenses over 2007-08, and his Tory counterpart, Oliver Heald, £156,594 in the same year.1 In this context, it is rather like appointing Al Capone to the Untouchables. Now, Brown has flip-flopped and announced an intention to impose ‘interim’ changes until some charade of an official process can be fulfilled. Exactly what these would amount to remains obscure.
Cameron, meanwhile, has called for an immediate general election – ostensibly on the basis that the people need a chance to throw out the greedy. In reality, of course, the fact that all parties have been hit more or less equally by this scandal means that the Tories have retained their considerable poll lead over Labour, and Cameron could broadly expect to win – likely with a record low turnout. This makes it a basically risk-free manoeuvre, which will leave Gordon Brown (when he inevitably refuses) open to accusations of ignoring the popular will. That popular will, unsurprisingly, can be summarised in four words – ‘turf them all out’.
The question, then, is what is to be done about it? An interesting – but ominous – development in this regard is the ever-louder calls for the Queen to step in and dissolve parliament, thus forcing an election. This is advocated at length, unsurprisingly, by Simon Heffer – the hard-line reactionary journalist – in the Telegraph (May 18). The former Revolutionary Communist Party’s website, Spiked, has found other examples of the same call being made in various local papers, from Huntingdon to Northampton.2 A little more depressingly, Craig Murray, the ambassador-turned-anti-war activist, echoes it on his blog.3
It should be fairly plain that looking to a monarch to solve the anti-democratic and corrupt nature of the British parliamentary system is counter-intuitive. We all know the extent to which the current constitutional arrangements financially benefit the royal family – to the tune of many millions of pounds a year. We all know that the existence of an unelected head of state is itself an affront to democracy – let alone one who can emerge from her ceremonial force field to dissolve parliaments. We are all unsurprised to find the likes of Heffer demanding a heavy hand from above. But Craig Murray?
On the other hand, it is perhaps to be expected that there are naive leftist echoes to this reactionary position. The fact is that there is no recall mechanism by which the masses can boot out individual MPs or bring a failed parliament to account. The result is well-known – we get to pick our oligarchs once every four to five years, and they get to do whatever they want in the intervening period. That legitimate disgust at the free rein our ostensible representatives have should take the form of looking for someone, anyone, who can hold them to account is unsurprising in a context where serious leftwing solutions simply have no social weight.
The left – such as it is – has found it very easy to make points in this atmosphere. Chris Bambery, in last week’s Socialist Worker, decried the parliamentary system as “not true democracy”. What, pray, would satisfy the comrade? “True democracy requires that all elected officials are directly responsible to those they represent. They should be able to be immediately replaced if they go against our wishes. They should receive an income equal to the average wage nationally” (May 16).
The polite way to respond to this eminently agreeable statement is – excellent progress! It was, after all, the same Chris Bambery who raised not a peep of dissent when the SWP junked this principle (and systematically ditched many, many more) when it came to forming Respect and staying on George Galloway’s good side. George famously claimed that he needed £100,000 to function politically – not exactly the average wage, is it? Frequent Respect candidate Yvonne Ridley went further, telling this paper: “Give me three or four times as much [as the basic Commons salary]” (July 1 2004).
It is, however, hard to credit the notion that the SWP has suddenly grown a backbone on the issue. At best, we may be looking at a sincere attempt to draw a line under the John Rees era, which was characterised by failed blocs of this kind. More likely still is that Socialist Worker is making hay while the sun shines, getting some digs in at bourgeois politicians without, now, an MP of its own to keep happy. And so it is that the latest issue (May 23) leads with mugshots of 14 cabinet ministers and a simple headline: “Jail them”. It is in the imperative case – but addressed to whom? The police? The Queen? The organisers of a military coup?
The Socialist Party in England and Wales compares well to the SWP, at least. In a long and often rambling editorial in its never knowingly exciting weekly, The Socialist, the comrades argue for a fair few democratic changes to the current set-up – that old SPEW/Militant favourite, a workers’ wage for all MPs, is here, as well as a requirement that all “directorships [and] advisory positions with private companies” be foresworn (indeed, many of the big claimers draw second salaries in just such roles). Also, we have correct calls for the abolition of the House of Lords (but not the monarchy, oddly), shorter parliamentary terms and lowering the voting age to 16 (May 12).
Communists, needless to say, share the demand for representatives to be kept to the average skilled worker’s wage. We certainly have no desire to go back to the days when MPs were not paid at all, which simply meant that they were all of ‘independent means’ – that is, capitalists and landlords, and therefore Liberals and Conservatives. The demand for a parliamentarian’s wage was a democratic demand whose fulfilment chiefly benefited the fledgling Labour Party.
There is also an element of truth to the arguments of the likes of George Galloway – politics is expensive work. What is crucial for working class representatives is for all organisational and political expenses to be handled by the party – that way, the career structure of politics is broken, and politicians are truly subordinated to the programme of which they are supposedly an instrument.
There is, however, another implication of the scandal which has not been quite so well drawn out since it has broken – precisely the question of openness. It is all very well demanding that elected representatives should be held to account – but this is simply impossible in conditions of official secrecy, where the machinery of government becomes the de facto private property of those in charge at a given time. ‘Open the books,’ communists have long argued with regard to company ledgers, most clearly Trotsky in the Transitional programme. But the demand applies a thousandfold to the state; the state is the object of Marxist political struggle, and getting to grips with its function and functioning is critical if the working class is to prepare for power.
Before the Telegraph’s coup, the issue of MPs’ expenses surfaced in the news mostly in the form of periodic grumblings that requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for details to be revealed were being fought tooth and nail – the outgoing speaker was particularly tenacious in his opposition. This information has been hauled from the MPs’ grasping claws.
The grand larceny and petty miserliness that has come to light proves Martin’s concerns well founded – but parliamentarians’ fears are deeper than that. If they had to reveal their expenses (and bear in mind that they still do not), what else might be made public? The government recently successfully challenged an FOIA request to publish key memos relating to the decision to go to war in Iraq, on ‘national security’ grounds – but it does not want to have to fight this battle for every last inch of its affairs.
Communists do not intend to make it easy for them. We demand full transparency in all public affairs.
2. www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/6730 . Northampton’s contribution reads like a Socialist Worker editorial – barring, of course, the reference to her majesty.