Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Fisking Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee has written a comment piece for the Guardian today which tries to argue that we should keep things regarding our MPs in perspective. I have tried to address some of her points below:

This isn't even the beginning of the end. After Jacqui Smith, expect a stream of MP expense scandals drip-fed into papers week by week. Rumours abound: is there a mole in the Commons fees office? Is it a Tory? Is someone selling these scoops? One thing is certain: deep-pocketed tabloids are chasing ministers, hiring Benji the Bin Man-type rummagers, bribing officials or just calculating MPs' property profits from expenses.

You are doubtless correct Polly, but the "deep-pocketed tabloids" would have nothing to uncover if the MPs had not been so greedy in the first place.

All parties are in for a roasting. In the autumn every MP's bath plug and lightbulb claim will be published. By bad luck, yesterday saw their pay rise by 2.33% to add to public anger.

Bad luck? They are in control of their own pay rises and have chosen to do this in the middle of a recession. Each individual MP is at liberty to give away their rise to charity or back to the Exchequer. Let's see how many of them do.

If moral instincts fail them, then every political sinew should alert MPs to do nothing they wouldn't want splashed across front pages, whatever the custom and practice of the house. Talk to MPs who don't claim much and they boil over at those claiming more than they need. Jacqui Smith calling her sister's back bedroom her main home looked all wrong, even if, apparently, officials said it was OK. The £10 blue movie fiasco is an embarrassing error, but hardly a high crime. For years no spotlight shone in this dark corner.

The blue movie fiasco will amost certainly destroy Smith's career and will become as emblematic of the sleaze of New Labour as brown envelopes and Neil Hamilton were for the Tories.

Now the system must change - and fast. What's up with the dilatory Committee on Standards in Public Life, refusing to lumber into action until September, not reporting until after the next election? This slo-mo response risks bringing the committee into the same disrepute as the MPs. Public thirst for blood spilled over on Question Time when Eric Pickles was booed and barracked for utterly failing to catch the angry moment. He looked shocked: frankly, they all do. If party leaders were wise, they would rush together to announce new rules, draw a line under the past and try to staunch the anti-politician bile.

I agree with all of this and indeed Nick Clegg has already written to the other two main party leaders suggesting this.

(Read online comments after this for waves of cynical hatred.)

This seems to be a pretty flagrant attempt to smear any criticism of her article before it has even been published (assuming this was not added afterwards but there is no EDIT comment attached to it). I have read some of the comments and they are largely polite but just disgusted with politicians and Polly's attempts at defending them.

But keep all this in perspective. Our politicians are among the cleanest in the world - 16th out of 180 nations and bunched less than two points from the top, according to Transparency International. Below us are the US, Belgium, France and Spain. But from the uproar, MPs stretching expense rules has been made to look like the pork barrel, backhander and bribery scams that plague other countries.

And? So what? We want a clean politics for this country. I don't care whether we are "not as bad" as some other countries. This is a red herring argument.

Let's repeat this: our MPs are rarely corrupt. Our feral press, however, finds growing transparency and freedom of information - brought in by Labour - offers easy meat for cheap stories. These hyped up "scandals" are frivolous compared with serious investigations such as the Guardian's arduous and risky revelations on company tax avoidance. If only more newspapers gave the same space to investigating opaque corporate bad behaviour that they devote to exposés of minor MPs' misdemeanours. Eternal trivia is not eternal vigilance.

Hmm. I agree with the need for us to more vigorously pursue tax avoidance but it is not an either/or situation. We should pursue things like that and also pursue public servants who have structured an "allowances" system to line their own pockets. The total amount of MPs expenses according to the figures released yesterday is over £80 million. This is not trivia.

But here's the wake-up call. MPs have been caught napping by the new wave of puritanism. Others will now come under unaccustomed scrutiny. Let this be a warning to all public officials, quangos, councils, NHS officials, sports authorities or anyone holding even minor power. Something has snapped. If public trust was always low, it has fallen down a crevasse in this financial crisis.

Absolutely. People are furious with our politicians and public officials and they have to respond to this right now. Right now. No kicking it into the long grass with inquries led by the great and the good reporting after the next election. Now.

Historians will see why: people feel a grand conspiracy by a well-paid elite has failed them. They were told this was a golden age, that astronomic pay at the top was yielding rich returns for the nation. They were told their soaring property values came thanks to the brilliance of the governing and banking classes. When your house price rose by £50 a day, why question the very clever, very well-paid people overseeing this great tide of wealth? Polls showed surprisingly little indignation as top pay rocketed. People believed those in power who said the golden geese were delivering the eggs.

I still thought there were problems with the current system as I am sure did many others even when times were good. However Polly is right that now times are tough there will be much more focus on this subject.

But no longer. MPs are getting the first blowback of the new mood. Everyone earning in the top tax bracket had better watch out: the real nature of inequality has been rumbled. Remember, only some 10% of people earn over £40,000. That means 90% earn less. All those with power - leaders, managers, controllers, commentators, decision-makers - inhabit a very small elite paid far above the norm. Median pay is around £23,000, so half the population earns less. Now trade unions no longer have the power to rattle the cage of the powerful, the upper 10% has lost its grip on reality, failing to realise how well off it is. MPs and others feel entitled to more if they compare themselves upwards, with the top 1% earning a monstrous swag. Extreme inequality causes pay dysmorphia - failing to see your pay in proper proportion to everyone else's.

But MPs earn more than 2.5x the median in salary alone (and that's before the tens of thousands of pounds of "allowances" are factored in). Do they really, honestly think they are badly paid?

It is unjust that the public sector - less greedy, less rich, more motivated by civic sense - will feel the blowtorch of this new mood. Beware throwing public-sector leaders into tumbrels. But as an easy target in a downturn, they had better cut back those top rates that have been infected by the private-sector pay virus. Meanwhile, businessmen flying "executive" class for no good reason, eating Michelin stars and conferencing in golf-friendly foreign spas pilfer public-company funds from other people's pensions under far less scrutiny.

No, I am sorry Polly but when times are tough, everybody has to share the burden. The caricature of businessmen eating swans and swimming in caviar is an attempt to distract from this. I am in business myself and we are having to be very careful on expenditure as I am sure most other businesses are. There are pay freezes, pay cuts, short time working, downsizing, suspended pension contributions, you name it going on in the private sector at the moment. the public sector cannot go on expanding whilst the private sector takes all the pain. It goes against natural justice and is economically wrong headed.

Beware of joining the general denigration of MPs. There are few Jonathan Aitken bad hats: you know them by the pricking of your thumbs. Most MPs in every party go into politics to change things for the better. A salary set today at £64,766 is fine, but most (not all) could do better outside.

This last bit is absolute rubbish. £65K per year is a huge salary and many MPs these days, certainly Labour ones are time servers who have never done a job outside politics. Once you factor in the "allowances" we are talking well over £100K. I simply do not believe that most MPs could earn this sort of money outside of politics and it insults our intelligence to suggest they can. Oh, and if they really do think they can, they should resign from the house and do it. There are no shortage of people waiting to replace them.

Few reach cabinet or even junior office. If they do, their powerlessness can still feel mortifying. Years of weekly graft in constituencies yield little personal benefit: most rise and fall with their party's fortunes.

MPs under collective omerta are usually better people in private than they are allowed to be in public. This era of Labour MPs has rebelled more than any other - though rebellion is not always as honourable as suffering under collective decision. We who comment on them do well to remember how plush is our perch, in comparison.

But the collective omerta is entirely their own fault. They control our system of government. If they want to be allowed more individualism, it is in their own hands. I agree it would be better if they were more independent minded but many MPs, certainly in the Labour and Conservative parties are politically cowardly when it comes to speaking their true mind on issues. Look at the conspiracy of silence for example on the failure of the "war on drugs". MPs are very quick to scream "Gaffe!" or "Soft on drugs/crime!" at each other as soon as one of them steps outside the ridiculously narrow bounds they set for themselves. It is their own fault.

Those who abuse, belittle and encourage popular contempt for MPs should consider that we need more good people in politics. Observing the excruciating public humiliation of the home secretary's husband for watching a couple of porn movies, with their children cringing indoors, how many potentially good future politicians decided they would rather not invite the world to root through their private life after all?

It is richly ironic that Jacqui Smith who has done so much to undermine our liberties and to ensure the state can poke their noses into our private business is likely to be undone by someone poking their noses into her private business (although made public due to the claim on taxpayer's money). Good people have nothing to fear from going into politics as long as they keep their side of the street clean and do not engage in the sort of egregious practises we have seen recently.

The MPs are getting exactly what they deserve and they only have themselves to blame.

No comments: