The Lesson From the Expenses Scandal? Try Democracy

May 13, 2009

The MP’s expenses scandal rumbles ever onwards, with its tentacles having enwrapped Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats in their grasp. Heck, even Sinn Fein has been embroiled in the scandal, as well as Plaid Cymru and the SNP, which is casting a sickening cloud over British politics.

Nothing new there then. It’s all eerily reminiscent of the political moment that brought Tony Blair to power in 1997, with the political system in disgrace, and public regard for their representatives plumbing new depths.

The difference now is that this political crisis is accompanied by an epochal economic crisis, which has disgraced the UK’s financial community deeply enough to make a few thousands mis-claimed pounds seem almost trifling.

And another difference is that in 1997, it was the Tories who received the bulk of the public’s ire, being dumped out of office spectacularly. That was only fair, as Tory sleaze truly did reach epic proportions, as it no doubt will again.

This time around, all parties are involved and on the back foot. But what are the implications for the British political system of all of this?

Well, the wholesale shaming of the political class will benefit those who can pose as outsiders seeking access to power. There is some fretting about the chances of the BNP in the upcoming European elections, and rightly so. The fascistic BNP will make maximum political capital out of public disgust at MPs excesses.

As the Independent’s Steve Richards writes, “in the short term, the leaders of the BNP must be rubbing their hands with glee,” adding that the expenses scandal will “make it easier for extreme parties to make their anti-politics pitch.” The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland agrees, arguing that the BNP “will surely receive a plague-on-all-your-houses boost in next month’s European elections” and labelling Westminster a “moral leper colony.”

For both Richards and Freedland, the major worry is not so much that the BNP will benefit – Richards sees their threat as short term. Instead, they are worried that the expenses scandal will erode the legitimacy of Westminster. Richards worries about the rise of  “anti-politics” (although how political parties can make an anti-political pitch is somewhat mysterious).

Freedland urges party activists and citizens to campaign locally for the deselection of their corrupt MPs, arguing that “Deselection was once a staple of the Labour lexicon, back in the fratricidal 1980s. It’s time to bring it back, across all parties – not to advance one partisan ideology, but to save the reputation of democratic politics itself.”

There’s nothing wrong with that on a local basis. The problem that I have with such analyses is that they are, essentially, just attempts to buttress a dysfunctional system rather than attempts to think outside of it to build a better one.

The expenses scandal lays bare the failure of representative democracy as practiced under the Westminster Model. It demonstrates the utter absence of accountability – MPs have not needed to think about the consequences of their actions, as no-one has been looking over their shoulders, perusing their expenses claims. The notion that the public could monitor such things has never been up for debate.

When the Nolan Commission on Standards in Public Life reported way back in the mid-1990s, it sought to iron out the malign influence of money on parliamentary politics. Consultancies held by MPs were to be banned, and lobby work too.  Under a Code of Conduct, MPs were to be held to “seven principles of conduct” which included “selflessness,” “integrity,” “honesty,” “openness,” “objectivity,” “leadership” and “accountability.”

Such agreements are, regrettably, made to be broken. One of its clauses stipulated that “Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute.”

That was directly after it had recommended that “Members shall at all times ensure that their use of expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is strictly in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters, and that they observe any limits placed by the House on the use of such expenses, allowances, facilities and services.”

MPs then arranged between themselves a deal by which much of the money that they would now not be paid (via consultancies and the like) would be made up by expenses claims, and it has taken over a decade for this to come to light.

The problem as I see it is not that the system is broken. That was apparent in the 1990s, and it was seen to be “fixed.” But there is a problem inherent to centralized representative democracy which goes deeper.

Secluding MPs away from those they represent (and MPs do often actively try to avoid meeting their constituents for fear of being held to account) generates an accountability gap. Without constant scrutiny from their constituents, MPs simply don’t act in their interests most of the time. Instead of forming a collection of reprsentatives, transmitting the will of their electors to Parliament, they form a conclave of legislators arranging deals between each other.

It’s more elected oligarchy than representative democracy. And we shouldn’t be astounded that it throws up scandals on a regular basis. Coupled with the dominance of corporate power, the system is hard wired to generate corruption, with the electorate heavily out-lobbied and out-bid.

So the alternative would be a system which devolves power back to localities, where politics is carried out in public, openly, and modestly. Instead of fretting about “anti-politics” – that is exactly what we need. We need to break the power of political parties and Westminster, giving smaller political units far more leverage over decisions than the constituency system allows.

I agree with those who worry about the rise of the BNP, and I agree that it is being fuelled by the disillusionment of the public with the political system. But lamely suggesting that what the system needs is remedial triage is not enough. Parliament has fallen a long way in recent decades, and mistrust is endemic.

Whether or not a few Labour MPs are deselected, or David Cameron whips his “grandees” into line, the BNP will thrive. Hopefully the Greens will too, but that’s beside the point.

On so many issues, the public needs direct input into the way Britain is run (witness airport expansion, Britain’s policy in Afghanistan, the endless stream of mega-projects, and the mishandling of the financial crisis). Building a culture of true democracy necessitates breaking Westminster – and cultivating an ethic of local participation is the only sure antidote to the rise of political extremism at the political centre.

We need to de-centre, and there has never been a better time to try.

[On edit: Steve Richards latest piece shows how limited his palette of argument is. In attempting to defend the established political parties, he ends up blaming us, or his readers, for having a rose-tinted notion of “public service.”

“Those who work in public life, and almost certainly other parts of the public sector are all motivated by a range of interests,” he reveals, “including financial remuneration” while, shockingly, “Some of them are more interested in money than others.”

He also makes out that MPs are generally naive idiots, who came to Westminster harbouring dreams of cabinet, “only to find that for much of the time you are lobby fodder, told what to do by the whips.” The appropriate consolation for this personal calamity? Lovely big expenses claims.

Richards also ends up arguing that, because of MPs corruption, public servants in other institutions, like the BBC or the NHS, should be similarly tarred.

“Let us not pretend that there is a unique public ethos” he concludes magisterially, “Every penny of public spending needs watching and safeguarding by independent regulators and through much more transparency.”

Or we could cultivate that public ethos by reforming our “democracy” to give more people a role in how it is run. And we could make public services more accountable to the communities that they serve.

And, and, and… we could generously fund those services which people would support if such services become much more accountable not to politicians, or to columnists on the Independent, but to ordinary people – citizens even.

How does that sound, Steve?]

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