Ten years ago today the MP ‘expenses scandal’ hit the headlines when the Daily Telegraph began publishing details of some of the bizarre (duck houses, moat clearing) and illegal (mortgage fraud) claims made by MPs on expenses. In the 10 years since this, our opinions of politicians and politics seems to have sunk to an all-time low and, as Brexit continues, appears to be sinking even lower (if that is possible).
The expenses scandal is just one (admittedly a big one) of a litany of events that have chipped away at the honour and credibility of our Parliament and our government. The war in Iraq was voted through on the strength of a dodgy dossier with little thought given to the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussain. A slashing of budgets to local authorities as an aging and ailing population caused a social care crisis just as local authorities are having to cut their budgets. Passing a referendum on membership of the EU for no other reason than to placate the right wing of the governing party. The shambles that has been the (non) delivery of Brexit. These are just some other examples of incompetence from government and it has to be said, opposition to hold them to account.
On top of that we have a significant degradation of the quality of our parliamentarians. Ministers like Karen Bradley the secretary of state for Northern Ireland who was so up on her brief (or basic general knowledge) that she didn’t understand why Protestants voted for unionist parties and Catholics voted for nationalist parties, or Chris Grayling whose list of abject failures and incompetence at every department he has been at is eye-watering.
We have a Prime Minister who robotically parrots the same phrases over and over again and tries micromanage everything without the realisation that she doesn’t have the whit nor wherewithal to even macro manage things.
We have a leader of the opposition who is more interested in the fate of Gaza and Venezuela than the crisis in our care system or schools and who has facilitated rampant anti-Semitism in the Labour party as well as appointing well know far left communists and militants into positions of real power in the official opposition.
We then have the quality of our MPs who just want to play the willing lapdog and lobby fodder for the leadership by planting inane questions at Prime Ministers question time rather than using that opportunity to raise issues of real local and national importance and holding the government to real account.
Where are the Atlee’s, the Churchill’s, the Jenkins, the Benn’s, the Powell’s, the Wilson’s, the Thatcher’s, the Owen’s, the Smith’s, the Clegg’s of our time? Never have I been so dismayed by the quality and depth of leadership in our country.
Maybe it is time for us to start falling back into love with our politicians – the problem is, as I’ve outlined, they are making it incredibly difficult to do so because of their incompetence and quality.
The expenses scandal has certainly taken a toll on the quality of our parliamentarians just as much as the low esteem they seem to be held in the public conscience. If you are a bright, articulate person brimming with ideas do you really want to work in a place where every penny you spend is scrutinised not only by the parliamentary authority but the media and public as well. We all think MPs are paid well and they are – £77,000 per annum puts them in the top 5% of earners in the UK but that level of renumeration is actually lower than many of their comparable legislators in other countries. I know it isn’t a popular view but maybe we should address the question of whether MPs should be paid more to account for the important role they fulfil in scrutinising and passing legislation. Of course their competence and record in doing this must be part of the formula.
The ability to do this is key. Less of the reading out a question written for them by a whip at PMQs to get an ingratiating mention for the local fete in their constituency and a brownie point for their rise up the slippery slope to preferment and more of the tough, no compromising questions that tests government and opposition as it should. Less not answering the question they were asked but the question they want to answer and more giving a straight answer to a straight question irrespective of whether it meets with the approval of the leadership or has passed the focus group test. Less timidity about being controversial or disloyal and more saying what they really mean and standing up for their principles (if they have any) and their constituents. Many of our weak and incompetent politicians are kept in place because of a preferment system run by the whips which rewards sycophancy and an out of date electoral system which makes getting rid of dead wood very difficult. This must be addressed if we are to trust politicians again – all votes should have equal value rather than the current 30% which count to electing our 650 MPs.
There are notable exceptions that give some hope on both sides of the commons divide. MPs who stand up and say what they believe, even if it means they are cutting off any route to promotion and preferment. I may not agree with them on some or most issues but respect has to be given to people like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bill Cash, John Mann, Frank Field, Jess Phillips et al. You may hate them, you may loath them, you may despise their opinions, but like Tony Benn, Alan Clarke, Ann Widdecombe, Tam Dalyell in their time, they ask serious questions, they have serious thoughts, they hold the government to account whether they are part of the governing party or not.
So, on the 10th anniversary of the expenses scandal, it probably is time, for the health of our democracy, to start to love our politicians again but for this to happen we need politicians we can respect. More Jess Phillips please and less Alan Mak.