A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

MP’s Expenses – Good for Democracy!

In Events, Home Affairs, The Media on February 20, 2010 at 9:49 pm

 By James Langford

Scandal has rocked the news, it’s rocked Parliament and it’s rocked democracy. After this latest landslide attempts have begun to rebuild the relationship between Parliament and the people. What exactly has happened since and what does the future hold for this country? This article will attempt to examine some of these issues and offer a wider perspective into the new world of politics.

Firstly it is a new world. The expenses scandal has been good for us – it’s brought politics alive again – while many may not be able to name Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party they will all be able to dub their MP a thief. They’ve all come to the conclusion that politicians are no good and that politics itself is a dead end – part of the problem rather than the art of resolution. If you don’t believe what I’ve just pointed out then I suggest you go canvassing some time in the near future – it’s all people want to talk about on the doorstep – and believe me they are angry and they want their elected representatives to know.

So that is the founding premise of this article – I’ll say it again – the expenses scandal has been good for democracy. Many things have happened since. Firstly Parliament has conducted the deepest internal audit possible with thousands being paid back and in the longer term many MPs announcing they will not be seeking re-election. This is brilliant – we will have more new faces to politics after the next election than ever before. The establishment has gone – new faces will bring a new politics.

One example that springs to mind is Sir Nicholas Winterton. He recently publicly criticized removing the first class train ticket allowance MPs currently enjoy. This desire to protect certain privileges is not the mindset we want from an MP and I hasten to add by no means representative of the modern conservative party (hence Cameron’s spokesman who quickly wished to deny affiliation with these comments).

What’s more we have gone further. Not only has every guilty MP been ridiculed by the media (the onslaught was led by the Telegraph) but those guilty of the most heinous abuses are going to face prosecution. Natural justice and the rebalancing of democracy are once again in play with public demand making inaction almost impossible. In the future Sir Christopher Kelly will redefine the scope of allowances for parliamentarians and we can be sure systemic abuse will never occur on such a scale again.

However all of these actions are to be expected. They’re not particularly interesting (although it will be something special if those MPs facing charges are convicted) and none of them really deal with my founding premise. In fact the results of this scandal (those not being reported by the media) are much more interesting. In essence democracy has been re-born, and after a baptism of fire, people are looking to see if this is the ideal which they can still idolize.

At a national level the result has been for Labour to once again explore a change of voting system. Alas, this shows that those who permanently reside in Westminster (and not their constituencies) don’t understand what is happening. A change of voting system is profoundly reckless – as I will go on to show Westminster is not where the solution to this problem lies and we must solve this problem before we go on to tackle the issue of electoral reform. This article is neither supports or challenges the need for electoral reform.

It is at a constituency level where the most interesting changes are taking place. I’ve already indicated – people are once again interested in politics. These are people who have always had ideas about what should change but now they are more willing to voice them and more willing to criticize national politics. This has re-opened a dialogue between local parties, their MP’s, Parliamentary Prospective Candidates and the people they wish to serve. They’re not talking about the big things which politicians so regularly love to get involved in – they’re talking about the local issues which matter to them.

It is very difficult to exemplify this and I am certainly not about to talk of my own experiences of this at a local level. However one example of MPs reconnecting with the people does spring to mind: broadcast on channel 4 “Tower Block of Commons” aims to show four MPs what it’s like to live in a rough urban tower block. No one could have predicted the results of this experiment and I admire the four MPs who were brave enough to take part.

The show puts MPs in some of the most difficult circumstances which many people have to endure every day. From living off benefits to finding syringes at your doorstep MPs and the wider public are offered a real insight into this lifestyle. The different MPs all adapt to cope with the situations which they face and I believe (as the program seems to suggest) that there were some real benefits to the local communities which took part in this experiment.

This is what I’m trying to get at; all of the people on this program are not talking about budget deficits or inflation but they are talking about community centers and gangs. Moreover we also get to see different reactions to the BNP – some want to vote for them while others find their presence utterly unhelpful. My conclusion here is becoming evident – the old westminster politics has to go – democracy is alive again. The best place for politics is on the doorstep and in the community – not in London. Parliament has great potential to install real change but the most effective changes are often delivered at a local level and it is here where our new parliamentarians must now focus their time.

Interestingly Labour MP Austin Mitchell who took part in the tower block of commons describes the show as an attempt to demonstrate that MPs are out of touch, with the aim of the show focused on ruining the image of MPs. In his case the show did both. He was the only participant not to live and eat with the residents he met but rather demanded his own flat and that his wife join him. He refused to live off JSA and instead was busy hosting dinner parties in his flat as well as escaping to friends for dinner. He’s certainly a great character and the work he did with the youth center was beneficial. Yet I think he failed to grasp the opportunity which so many MPs have missed. This was a show all about connecting MPs with reality and I think Mr Mitchell probably missed some of this reality by not fully connecting with the life of a resident in a tower block.

Democracy is alive my friends and we want to keep it this way. If we can once again stimulate a full revival in local politics and get it right the national scene will sort itself out. This next election is the most important ever – it’s time to transfer voter apathy into votes! If parties work together to rebuild the image of politics we can solve so many of our current political problems. We can, we will, we must!

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  1. […] applaud James Langford for his excellent piece on the MP’s expenses scandal, which argues well the positive effects […]

  2. […] Wan talks in his latest article, in reply to James Langford, of the co-incidence of a more serious decline in turnout with the rise of New Labour. I hope that […]

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