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?

After Tuesday night’s BATCA Open Forum I was pointed in the direction of Sadiq Khan’s website, and, specifically, his coverage of the news that Tooting town centre is to get its own police team.

Sadiq Khan welcomes Tooting police teamObviously I’m glad that he also welcomes the team. But I was drawn to the comment that “Labour Councillors and Sadiq have lobbied Wandsworth Council to introduce” the new team.

I have to take issue with this for two reasons:

  1. I’m not aware of Sadiq ever asking Wandsworth Council to introduce a police team in Tooting.  As the Cabinet Member responsible for community safety I would expect council officers to have told me if he had. However, even if he had I wouldn’t be that disappointed if officers hadn’t let me know because of my second point…
  2. Wandsworth Council (like every other council in the country) does not control, manage or in any other way direct the police.  We may work in partnership with them, but we do not have any operational control.

Now Sadiq is a minister in the Department for Local Government.  He was also a Wandworth Councillor for many years before becoming an MP.  I suppose it’s entirely possible you could do both those roles without  knowing what’s going on (Gordon Brown was Chancellor for ten years, after all), but it is stretching credibility a bit far.

The more realistic explanation is that he knows the council is not responsible for the police, but took the gamble many people don’t know.  And to his credit it’s actually a pretty good gamble, I’ve spoken to many residents who assume the police are just a part of the council.  And it makes good political sense for a Labour MP in a marginal seat.  You take credit for good news, and get to imply the Conservative council are the bad guys.

So, lesson one: if it’s good, take credit for it.  If possible, do this while suggesting your opponents were to blame for whatever wasn’t so good before.

I won’t pretend that I or my party are whiter than white.  Only this morning I was accused of doing much the same thing, and re-reading my announcement of the news feel I should add to it.

I will still give some credit to this to the Mayor, neighbourhood resources are allocated centrally and very little flexibility is allowed.  When we’d previously tried to address this, by seeing if resources could be moved to priority areas it was refused out of hand: Boris deserves credit for allowing a more pragmatic approach.

And I will still point out that we have repeatedly asked for town centre teams for Tooting and Clapham Junction.  What’s more, we were asking the right people.

However, I didn’t give credit to the police borough commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low, who actually made it possible by re-organising his teams to free up the sergeant, constables and community support officers necessary to create the team.  If there is a single individual who deserves credit it is him, and I’m happy to apologise for not pointing that out when I first had the opportunity.

One of the books in me is The Aborted Politician, a look at those people who created an embryonic political career and contested a parliamentary seat and then – for whatever reason – did not pursue politics any further. Luckily for the book-buying public no publisher would touch me. My Comprehensive school education barely got beyond ‘doing words’ and ‘describing words’ and while I use semi-colons to appear clever; deep down I know I’m not using them properly.

Unfortunately the internet gives a forum to anyone dull enough, angry enough or self-obsessed enough to set up a blog.

So, prompted by ConservativeHome’s look at the 27 ‘A list’ candidates (from the original 100) who are no longer looking for a seat I started thinking about the issues around this again.  The article is interesting partly because a single internet page has probably ruined my book idea.  And interesting because I’m guessing this is about as close to an exit interview any of these people have got.

My interest in this is that I, too, am one of those aborted politicians.  When younger I was determined to become an MP and in 2001 found myself fighting my unwinnable, the apprenticeship seat, which I enjoyed enormously.  Obviously I lost (only 11,000 or so votes in it), but did a good enough job to get myself on the approved list of candidates for the 2005 election.

And that was it.  I never applied for another seat.

In the run up to the 2005 election I gave myself all sorts of excuses for not applying for seats.  No suitable vacancies…  I wanted to get more life experience…  My time was more valuably spent working in Battersea…  But deep down I think I knew that I just didn’t really want to be an MP anymore, even if I could not pin-point actually taking that decision.

Now I don’t think I’m typical.  And don’t think I’m a great loss to Parliament.  But looking through the list on ConservativeHome, and knowing others who were not even allowed on the list in the first place, I think Parliament and this country has missed out on some very able potential MPs.  And if we want to improve the government of this country we need to work out why those talented people get so close,  invest so much of their time, energy and money, and then walk away.

Maybe I fall into the self-obsessed category (I’m not angry about it, and hope I’m not dull) but I feel an examination of those abortive political careers would cast an interesting light on the political system.  While the Conservative and Labour Parties have fairly professional looking assessment procedures, the whole process is slightly odd.

For my assessment I had to go to Melton Mowbray, home of the pork pie and a rather nice conference hotel venue, where I sat psychometric tests, took part in role plays, did desk-top exercises and was interviewed but – very curiously – encouraged not to talk about politics.  The reasoning was that they were looking for people who could bring real life experience to the party.  But I couldn’t, and still can’t, help but think it’s a bit odd.  Would you want a doctor who has no curiosity about the human body?  A musician with no passion for music?

The problem is that parties only have a veneer of professionalism and, while it’s getting better, we still have amateurs running the country.  There isn’t an HR department identifying training needs, nor a proper disciplinary process to deal with problem members (you can’t pretend elections serve this purpose when the majority of seats never change hands).  The fact is that initiatives like the Conservative ‘A list’ are window dressing, the aims are noble, but they do not address the underlying issues that need tackling to improve female or ethnic minority representation in Parliament.  My suspicion is that despite all the initiatives on both sides of the political divide the basic profile of the MP hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 20 or 30 years.

Of course, I can imagine what the Daily Mail’s response would be if MPs were to vote themselves a decent training allowance, or Parliament were to start giving political parties money to develop talented grassroots activists who may have something to offer on a wider stage.  So, instead, we end up with the legislature and executive we deserve, just because that’s the way politics is done in this country.

Laverstoke Gardens, one of the areas what would be improved in the council's regeneration

Laverstoke Gardens, one of the areas that would be improved in the council's regeneration

Last night’s Regeneration and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee was something of a blast from the past, since the Labour Party spent a lot of time presenting a paper prepared by Stuart King.  Stuart was a councillor in Wandsworth from 1998 until 2006 when he lost his seat.  He was also the Labour group leader and served on a lot of the same committees as me before his defeat.

Stuart’s latest hobby has been representing the Labour party in Putney, and as part of this he has, as is his right, been campaigning against our plans to create employment, quality housing and businesses and a pleasant environment in Roehampton.

The Labour group brought one of his misleading surveys to the committee last night.  Despite admitting that the council had conducted extensive consultation in the area and that King’s report could be said to be biased they suggested the council should spend more money to ask people, for the fourth time, what they thought.

In fact, I think it represents a total failure of the Labour group to provide community leadership.  It’s the fourth different position they have taken in four meetings.  First of all they supported regeneration.  Then they weren’t sure.  Then they opposed it.  Now they want to ask people what they should think.

What leaves me most disappointed is Tony Belton’s stance, since it seems his group is now, rather than serving the Wandsworth community, just dancing to Stuart King’s tune.

Roehampton has the borough’s highest unemployment rate.  It has higher than average crime.  It has a disproportionately high take up of non-work related benefits like incapacity and lone parent benefits.  It is badly served by public transport, so people face difficult journeys to work or learn.  Hence the scheme, designed to create employment in a refreshed centre at Danebury Avenue and Roehampton Lane.

It is one of the few times I have really been saddened by Wandsworth politics.  The political groups will always have different solutions to problems, but this is one time when Labour have shown a poverty of ambition and, in doing so, seek to remove the hope of Roehampton and Alton Estate residents.

Marks and Spencer have announced that their Balham Simply Food store will be among those to close.  This is obviously not good news, either for Balham Town Centre or the employees who will be losing their jobs.

But it’s also a reminder that recession is not just about businesses going into administration and names disappearing totally, but employers cutting costs and jobs being lost.

Marks and Spencer will remain, for the time being, elsewhere in the Borough, but in Balham there is going to be a big hole in the high street.  I just hope at tonight’s Regeneration and Community Safety OSC meeting Labour don’t have the temerity to try blame the state of the pavements rather than their government’s economic failure.

Today Alistair Darling will announce that Labour have finally seen the benefits of low taxation.

Or has he?  The BBC is currently reporting an expected temporary reduction in VAT to 15%, along with the introduction of a new higher rate tax band and the postponement of various other changes.  In other words, we’re increasing taxes, not immediately, but it’s coming.

And it’s questionable who will benefit from the reduction in VAT.  Any reduction in tax is not to be scoffed at, but if you take a low income household and consider where their income goes, much of it is spent on VAT exempt goods.  The weekly food shop – mostly VAT free.  Children’s clothes – VAT free.  Fuel bills -already at a lower VAT rate.

Of course, they’ll save a few quid on their Christmas shopping, but I suspect that’s small consolation when the parents fear for their jobs as we head into recession.

Is there another way?  Well, there was a good article in today’s Telegraph that points out that Conservative controlled councils are about the only places you see efficient, well-run and affordable government nowadays.