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?

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.

I’ve tried to resist, I really have.  But I can’t help but post on Jacqui Smith submitting a claim for her husband’s porn.   But it’s just too good a story to let pass by.  And it isn’t just a case of taking the high moral ground, although I did oppose the government’s attempt to conceal MPs’ expenses.  Nor is it a case of believing that MPs’ should wear hair-shirts.

If anything, I’m a bit uncomfortable about the whole row because I think MPs are entitled to expenses for second homes.  What’s more, I have no problem with them using it for a bit of luxury.  If you are expecting most of them to divide their lives between two homes I do not see how they would be made more effective if one was a ‘home’ and the other the political equivalent of a monk’s cell.  People need a degree of comfort.

Where the line is drawn is a matter for debate.  What I might consider a perfectly acceptable comfort might be a luxury too far for someone else.  Indeed, I don’t think I’d object to a media package, why shouldn’t MPs be able to unwind with a bit of mindless TV or a movie?  But even having said that, paying for porn for the other half is surely a step too far.  What really gets me on this is that the Home Secretary submitted this claim nearly a year ago.  Only now it’s in the news has it become a problem.  But didn’t she check the claims made in her name?  Didn’t she spot the curiously titled items on her Virgin Media bill?

To me, the worst sin here is not a husband who likes porn when his wife is away, but the culture in which an MP can claim for anything they want without any sort of moral check.  Now it might be that Jacqui Smith doesn’t do her own expenses claims, and that would be even worse; you then have people in her office (and I know her husband is one of them) who don’t check the claims, or if they do, don’t feel they can challenge what is a blatant abuse of public money.  Whatever way you look at it the whole culture around MPs expenses in corrupt.