Tuesday 6 October 2009

MPs' Expenses Review Delayed Again

Anyone following the media coverage of the three Westminster party conferences over the last month, with its usual policy vacuum and emphasis on individual personalities, might start to believe that the MPs' expenses scandal was something that happened in the dark and distance past.

However, somewhere in the background the scandal still rumbles on. The Telegraph reported yesterday that the official audit of MPs expenses by Sir Thomas Legg, due to report in September, now seems likely to be delayed until the new year. Why? Because as many as 90% of MPs have had questions to answer over their allowances.

Just how little standing politicians now posess was highlighted by an opinion poll in September: Ipsos MORI's latest Trust in Professions survey (pdf) found that only 13% of people trust politicians to tell the truth, while 82% think they do not tell the truth, making MPs more mistrusted than business leaders in the midst of the worst economic crisis is years or even journalists, the perennial losers in the veracity stakes.

The reason for this collapse in trust seems obvious. The very MPs who have ensured their own financial security at the public's expense, 105 of whom (so far) will retire at the end of this Parliament with generous pensions that the rest of us can only envy, have largely been allowed to get away with their venal conduct. These same MPs are now providing the 'consensus' for the need for massive cuts in public expenditure. Having fleeced us for years, they are telling the rest of us that we must work longer, meekly accept lower pay, more fragile pensions and more draconian restrictions on benefits if we are unemployed or incapacitated.

The trouble is that the majority of the media, especially political journalists within the 'Westminster bubble', are immune to the impact of the recession too. Moreover, they are so friendly with and so dependent upon the MPs, lobbyists and fellow commentators that make up their world that they are find it far more difficult to share public anger about the appalling excesses that MPs have indulged themselves in. So the expenses scandal has been relegated to the status of old news.

At some point before the middle of next year, however, the general election must finally be called and voters will have the chance to rid themselves of a discredited Rump Parliament, whose authority has been all but destroyed by the MPs' expenses scandal and by the support of most MPs for neoliberal economic policies that spectacularly unravelled with the near-collapse of the banking system.

And with delicious timing, it looks as if the the audit of MPs expenses will report - and the scandal will reignite - just before, or even in the early stages of, the general election campaign.

Knowing this leaves us in an interesting position. One of the unwritten laws of politics says that the closer we get to an election, the less willing civil servants and the establishment become to implement decisions that have declining political legitimacy. But in what are undoubtedly unique circumstances, why can't trade unions, residents groups, campaigners and the wider public adopt the same principle too? If any proposal that comes out of this tarnished, disreputable Parliament lacks authority and legitimacy, why shouldn't we reject it all out of hand? Because a bunch of journalists, who barely command any more trust than MPs, say otherwise?

Apart from our own timidity, what's to stop us from effectively making the country ungovernable?


HarpyMarx said...

"105 of whom (so far) will retire at the end of this Parliament with generous pensions that the rest of us can only envy, have largely been allowed to get away with their venal conduct."

And I may be wrong, but am sure MPs got an increase in their pensions over the summer while your average worker is seeing their pension raided, or reduced. And expected to work until we drop!

I agree with the sentiments of your post btw.

Kevin said...

I think Liam Mac Uaid's piece at http://liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2009/10/06/the-agony-of-choice-tory-or-labour-cuts/ sums up the problem about timidity very well.

Not a word from the TUC about the threat of cuts made at two major party conferences. As Liam says, "it has been left to Mark Serwotka to say some of the things that a union leader should be saying in these circumstances. He has said that his union will strike against Labour’s proposed cuts and has at least issued a statement defending the public sector and condemning the Tory plans."

Respect to Mark Serwotka - that's the attitude I'm talking about!

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