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Tuesday, May 26, 2009 

From expenses to going soft in the head.

After taking an age to respond, with Labour still yet to make anything like the stand which the Conservatives have, you have to wonder whether what began as a crisis in politicians rather than necessarily in parliament itself has started to get out of hand. Not because the proposals for more general reform, especially those set out today by David Cameron, are too radical, but instead because they don't seem to be actually targeting what enraged the public in the first place: personal enrichment rather than general democratic failings.

One of the things that few commentators seem to have attempted to adequately answer is why the expenses debacle, rather than other recent general failures, whether you include the Iraq war, the previous loans for coronets scandal, or more recently the banking collapse and with it the breakdown of what had been a consensus of how the country could be run, has been the straw that broke the camel's back. The former and the latter have cost and will cost sums that dwarf the money which MPs have claimed for second houses, duck houses or duck a l'orange, while our involvement in Iraq has directly cost the lives of thousands, and indirectly hundreds of thousands, and from which it will take our reputation decades to recover.

Certainly, part of it is just a logical progression from the rage that was briefly directed at bankers, although again their greed puts MPs' second home allowances and other perks into stark contrast, albeit bankers were then not using public money for their bonuses. Recessions often are cathartic, and the anger and bitterness that come with the sudden change in circumstances has to be directed somewhere, but at MPs as a whole rather than just at a set of individuals within a party or at one party in particular is something new. Admittedly, this has been building for some time, as more and more, again admittedly with some justice, have started decrying politicians as all the same. Still though this alone doesn't quite explain why the loathing has reached such a crescendo. We seem to want our MPs both to be above the kind of temptations which befall many of us mere mortals, while also being as normal as politicians can be. When it turns out that MPs are, unsurprisingly, just as liable to bend the rules as far as they can go as the rest of us are, for which they should nontheless be condemned, it still seems completely disproportionate for them to come in for the savaging which has been raining down on their heads now for close to 3 weeks.

From this has spawned the obvious look for quick fixes to a system which has been broken for quite some time. The real demand though seems to be far more simple: everyone out, and everyone out now. This is something that the current politicians are hardly likely to accede to, and so there has to be an alternative found. Those who have long sought reform for principles both pure and personal have also found a perfect opportunity to perhaps finally get their way, echoing the Rahm Emanuel quote that you should not let a good crisis go to waste. All this though seems to be ignoring what the public themselves want: they mostly don't seem to care about the inner workings of parliamentary committees or what votes are whipped and which aren't; they just want the rotten out and a new lot in and to let them work it out.

All of us are however making numerous assumptions here. Fact is, we simply don't know how this is going to pan out; it might yet peter out as the Telegraph's revelations eventually do, or it might keep going until an election has to sort it out. This is why the most attractive proposal of all so far has been Alan Johnson's, for a referendum on proportional representation to be held at the same time as that election. That will fundamentally answer the question on whether the thirst for reform is long lasting and thoughtful or short and ugly.

It's also instructive that proportional representation is one of the few things that David Cameron has actively ruled out, in what has been variously described as either the most radical thing ever, "the spirit of Glasnost", as Cameron's Guardian article rather pompously puts it, or more plausiably, as politics having gone soft in the head. Instructive in that it's one of the few things that genuinely would change the way politics is run, while Cameron's other lauded promises, or not even that, potential aspirations are tinkering at the edge. Some of his proposals are simply laughable, such as the idea that the person who currently employs Andy Coulson as his chief spin doctor is going to be the one that puts an end to sofa government, promised by Brown and also broken. He wants to end the quangocracy without naming a single one which he actually plans to abolish, as so do many others who rant against them. He wants to tackle the power grabs by the EU and judges, without leaving Europe and without withdrawing presumably from the ECHR, making the ripping up of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a British bill of rights an utter waste of time. Then there is just the madness of ultra-Blairism still writ large within the Cameroons: ending the "state monopoly" in education, which is in actual fact local authority control, giving parents the power to set up their own schools, as if they have the time or will to do so. The similar powers on housing seem to be a recipe for banana-ism: build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything, while on policing seem destined to result in the futility of "bobbies on the beat" while politicising the organisation. He meanwhile has nothing whatsoever to say on Lords reform, the monarchy or on the anachronisms of Westminster itself which seem to be kept only so that tourists can experience the quaint old-worldiness of the mother of all parliaments.

Cynicism is easy, but it's difficult not to be when you reflect of how many in opposition have promised reform along these lines only for it not to materialise once power has been grabbed and when such changes are no longer so attractive. You can't help but think all we might eventually get from Cameron's changes are the schools and parliamentary debate on YouTube; that again though, might all be the public themselves want. It's difficult not to reflect that the old adage we get the politicians and politics we deserve still rings as true as ever.

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"why the expenses debacle, rather than other recent general failures,"

I think it's to do with the difference between political disagreement and personal ethics.

One of the things that people always cited about the war was that Blair lied. Many thought the war was wrong but it was the fact that there was a personal, moral failing that seemed to cut the deepest - possibly because many people bought those lies at the time.

People forgive mistakes, or things not being perfectly to plan dishonesty is something else.

The expenses scandal shows personal corruption which people are far more contemptuous of than political ideas they don't agree with. When you don't agree a policy you can campaign and try to win the argument - when someone is dishonest all you can do is sack them.

This can be particularly hurtful when it's someone you admired or voted for. MPs are facing attacks from every side, even those who were allied with them over ID cards or trident - because this time they are lining their own pockets.

I think the other thing is that it is the straw that broke the camel's back - it comes after all the rest not before and I think that's very telling.

Cameron's proposals don't really alter the elective dictatorship at the heart of politics. If a party can get a very good majority on 36%of the vote and on a 60% turnout after his 'reforms' then it isn't fixed. Proportional representation (STV) probably linked with compulsory voting with a none of them box is key to breaking the power of the whips. It's said it leads to weak government and back room deals. Well I'll live with weak government if it removes the Blair and Thatcher capacity to steamroller their agenda through; no backroom deals under the current system - pull the other one. You rightly highlight the continuing attack on local government; I'd restore all powers linked to the same voting system as we have in Scotland and then see. As for parents putting schools together, how long after the first madrassahs are set up will this last?

I'd give this a beta minus for effort but suggest he goes back and rethinks it through to see if he is capable of creating some depth of thought.

Perhaps the difference between the fury aimed at bankers and politicians is in the matter of trust?

We trust politicians with our power, and our money and they abused it. A lot of the fury aimed at bankers was not at the money they lost, but the fact that our money was going to be used to bail them out and pay for their bonuses, pensions etc as well as the failure of the government, in whom we'd placed our power, to stop it.

We give bankers and other financial institutes our money voluntarily; the government takes it under threat of force. We have no choice and thus those who handle it have to be squeaky clean.

If you view politics as just a job and that we pay for their 'services' then perhaps it would be a matter of selecting individuals abusing the system, but it isn't.

Good post, thanks, agree with all of this.
I've just dissed you on Liberal Conspiracy! Maybe we can still be friends????

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