The whole expenses saga has me yearning for Dave Nellist. Nellist was a left-wing Labour MP, deselected by his party for the 1992 election for being too left-wing. One of his trademark policies was to only take the average wage of a worker in his constituency rather than the full MP’s salary. As a Conservative there’s something unnatural about me liking him, but I believe in politics (too much of the national debate since the 90s hasn’t been about real politics, but about who would be better managers) so always admire conviction politicians, even – and perhaps especially – when I think their convictions are just daft.
At the time I felt his refusal of a full MP’s salary was a stupid idea, and I haven’t changed that opinion. The simple fact was that he was not an average worker in his constituency, he was their MP. Posturing is all well and good, but I’m guessing the average Coventry skilled worker didn’t have a second home in London. Despite that, you cannot deny that Nellist, by having to live on the same income and means as his constituents was probably fairly in touch with their concerns and problems. The very fact he limited his income gave him some idea of how they had to live their lives.
Now, the argument against all the interest in expenses is that it just really isn’t all that important, is it? And maybe we have all got worked up into a frenzy over nothing. To put it in perspective Peter Andre and Jordan are splitting up, and only last week a good chunk of Croydon was going to die from swine flu, both in their own way more important issues to some. So why do we worry about expenses?
There’s an interesting interview with the normally sensible Stephen Fry on the Newsnight website, who points out that there are more important reasons to be annoyed with politicians, like the wars they get us into. And he goes on to highlight that abusing expenses is a fairly old tradition. Almost as proof, I recently got a receipt from a taxi driver where he’d inflated the journey cost without being asked. He’d just assumed I’d be claiming for a few quid more than I paid (but instead gave me the opportunity to be pious on my blog, I only claimed for the actual cost – and hasten to add this was not from the council).
But expenses are important. Can we really say that we want politicians we can trust with the big decisions – on education, the NHS, war – but that we can’t trust when it comes to their expenses? If you take that view, then you’re essentially saying some corruption is OK. Actually, what you then need to argue is where the line is drawn. Looking at recent episodes it would seem using public money to redecorate second homes and escape Capital Gains tax on a subsequent sale (as several MPs seemed to do regularly) is OK, but employing a family member to do very little is totally unacceptable, as Derek Conway discovered to his cost.
And the biggest reason they are important is because politicians shouldn’t live in a totally different world to the rest of us. The story that annoyed me most was Barbara Follett’s expenditure of £25,000 on private security patrols. I’m very sorry that she was a victim of crime in London, but unfortunately she is far from alone – most people cannot afford private security patrols themselves and do not have an employer who will fund them. It is bizarre that instead of using her position as an MP in the governing party to do something about crime or to help victims she decided she would use her position as an MP to help herself.
And this is where we could learn from Dave Nellist. Being a Conservative it’s not natural to put myself in his shoes, but I have tried, and I can’t help but feel he wouldn’t think about getting private security, or silk cushions. I rather imagine he’s used to budgeting so takes care with his toilet seats because he knows they aren’t free. He knows that the people he represented don’t get their gardening done, moats dredged or food bills paid, he lives in the same world as them.
The common response from all the MPs named (except those claiming innocence) is that their claims were all within the rules. I wasn’t me, guv, the system’s broken. But do we honestly believe a broken system absolves them of their personal responsibility? Each and every one of them submitted their claim, and each and every one of them should be able to justify it; we should, and must, hold our elected leaders to a higher standard. They all go there to change things for the better. If they can’t change things in their own House, what hope is there for the rest of the country?