Monday, May 11, 2009

British Democracy in Despair

Have been catching up on what's been in the news while we've been away in the Canaries. Its unspeakably awful. So treacherously awful and so comprehensively covered by the media, that as a Parliamentary candidate, there is little I can safely add. Anyone who supports the principle of Parliamentary democracy must be in despair. I'm not going to express an opinion on reports about individual claims. I recall making a comment, following a similar rumpus when National Assembly Member's receipts were published last December. I said that the claim I most disapproved of was by a Labour AM - for a Remembrance Day wreath. I later posted that I regretted making the observation. And wouldn't you know it. Its now being reported that two Conservative MPs have done the same thing - though this may not be true of course. But I reckon its reasonable to comment on where next.

David Cameron made the right judgement by apologising last night for what's been going on. Gordon Brown was right to follow suit today. The next step should be for all receipts to be made public as soon as possible. The future of democracy is at stake, and there can be no more delays. Let everything be put on the table. Let us know the whole truth. It cannot be worse than what everyone is thinking. Its clear that many inappropriate claims have been made, and there should be apologies and repayments. But even this will no longer satisfy the public, and neither should it.

What's done is done. What matters now is the response. Its straight forward if there has been payments have been made on the basis of wilful untruth, though I've not seen reports of any such thing to date. Fraud is fraud, and should be treated appropriately. Its more difficult to know where the line of inappropriateness should be drawn, where payments have been approved by the Fees Office - though we should remember who sets the rules by which the Fees Office makes judgements. Whether claims have been in the proper 'spirit' will be a matter of judgement for party leaders. I've no doubt that the public will reward decisive action.

I do have sympathy for politicians who are falsely accused, or are guilty of no more than a small and innocent oversight. But because there has been such a determination by MPs to prevent publication, and a failure to recognise that the public have had more than enough, soon enough, has brought the ceiling down on everyone's head. Its an absolute disaster for politics, and only a decisive , and ruthless response will begin the process of restoring confidence in British politics. Its going to be a very long haul though.

Perhaps the aspect that I find most damaging is when politicians are not prepared to stand before an interviewer and justify claims they have made on the taxpayer. I've never agreed with this approach. During my 8 years as an Assembly Member, I used to find that whenever there was an issue of this sort, I was the only one who was prepared to be interviewed. There's a few simple rules. Every claim on the taxpayer should be made public. And every politician who makes a claim should be prepared to defend it in public. Before the next General Election, candidates will have to give cast iron assurances about how they are going to behave. And perhaps the voters will begin to make real judgements about the individuals who are standing, as well as voting for the party label.


Dr. Christopher Wood said...

Glyn> you're dead right in your comment: "The future of democracy is at stake, and there can be no more delays."

We have a national emergency so insidious that if it is not tracked and killed down to the root tips the nation's future will remain in peril.

Never in the annuals of modern British political history has Her Majesty's government so imperiled the nation that it is supposed to serve.

The nation is at DEFCON 1.

One more failure at fixing this issue and the UK might as well pull the blinds down and pray for invasion because any leadership would be better than the expenses scandalized parties the UK has right now.

It would be better for the people to rebel and force a national election on the issue of cleaning up the British legislature.

Jeff Jones said...

Like you Glyn my feelings at the moment are of despair at the way in which some have misused their position as MPs. I joined the Labour Party over 40 years ago and I've always believed that Labour Party representatives as Attlee argued in the 1930s had to be guided by certain moral standards.As for the political philosophy of the party the basis should always be Keir Hardie argument that 'Socialism was the Sermon on the Mount put into practice.' British democracy now faces probably its great crisis since universal suffrage was introduced.As Burke once said 'It is necessary for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.' It is now necessary for good men and women in all political parties and there are many to now come together to ensure that lessons are learnt and that the good reputation of British democracy is restored. Those who have been guilty of misusing the system should not only pay the money back and the tax owed but they should also in a number of cases be deselected. Instead of blaming the press Michael Martin should be blaming those MPs weho have brought Parliamentary democrarcy into disrepute. At the moment I feel ashamed to live in a country where a national newspaper feels that it is appropriate to call one of the most senior ministers in the government a'liar and a thief'. The reforms required are simple. Complete transparency of all claims, a system of accomodation similar to that in Sweden coupled with an increase in salary butpaid for by fewer MPs. Throw in a written constitution for the 21st century and PR to elect all politicians and we might be getting somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Cameron has to bring the axe down on members of the frontbench and punish high-ranking backbenchers serverly as its the only way to stave off the Martin Bell's of this world doing another Tatton with safe Conservative seats at the next election.

Glyn Davies said...

Christopher - I now think that the worse the scandal is the better. It absolutely crucial the the shock to our political system is sufficient to produce real change.

Jeff - Can't see what a move to PR and a written constitution have got to do with this. Personally, I don't agree with the idea that Government should provide the accommodation. Have you checked how much the system costs the Swecish Government? I'd be surprised if its any cheaper. Whatever, I'll go with whatever Christopher Kelly proposes.

anon - I agree that a ruthless response is needed, though I cannot say what that should be. Judgements can be taken only after a proper consideration of all individual circumstances.

Jeff Jones said...

Effectively because of first past the post in many safe seats MPs and AMs are chosen by a small ansd declining group of party members. The MP for Erith and Crayford which is a safe Labour seat will be effectively chosen by about 253 Labour Party members and that is assuming that they all vote. Probably the number of active Tory members in most constituencies is about the same. MPs in safe seats know that as long as they keep in with the declining number of activists they can often forget about the voters. At least even in the States the open primary allows ordinary people to play a part in the nomination of candidates. In the UK Obama would probably not have got to first base because he was too far outside the loop. As for the Swedish model the apartments are all owned by the State and in any case the issue isn't about saving money. Many MPs could quite easily be accomodated in the former GLC HQ just across the river which is now a hotel. When it is not used in the summer months it could be rented out to tourists as many student halls of residence in London are. A written constitution could ensure that all legislators could not see themselves as above the law. At least Cameron has acted swiftly on this one and he should be applauded for that. As for some of those on my own side such as George Foulkes who are trying to defend the indefensible by attacking the press words fail me. Their intervention in the media frankly just makes matters worse than they are in my opinion if that is possible.

Anonymous said...

The last few days have left me bemused and speechless- some of the MP's claims in the contained in the Telegraph are extremely damaging to all political parties and Democracy in general.

However, some good has come out of this. David Cameron's action today was extremely welcome. His decisions on how to govern expense claims of Conservative MP's in the future are essential in the fight to earn people's trust again. This, allied with senior MP's repaying excessive claims, I hope will start that process.

Dr. Christopher Wood said...

Anyone seen the Staples 'easy button'; it’s a marketing/advertizing tool state-side

Anways/Milliways, I guess one way out of this, absent Parliament finally agreeing on a sensible way of processing expense payments, is for each part leader to set up their own 'in-party' expense rules that their members dare not tread outside, wherein each member of that party (Labour, Conservative) must have approval from the in-party office dealing with expense claims. Bit like going through French customs before submitting oneself before Swiss customs to get into Switzerland. As part of a Citroen 2CV fan group in Preston I later travelled to Sustan Passover (spelling) for a big 2CV meet. The French customs gave our 2CV ex-French army-Jeep a lot of inspection, to such an extent the Swiss customs just waved us through.

So there is an easy fix - absent all the parties fixing it themselves as a group - each party set up their own "French Customs Office" to vet their respective members expense invoices prior to letting them go on to the Parliaments office for handling expense claims.

Any party member failing to go through or bypassing the "French Customs" process should loose the Party Whip and face permanent expulsion from his/her party.

There, that was easy.

Dr. Christopher Wood said...

PS ... I've not read much of the newspapers today, but maybe the French Customs idea is alreading being entertained by party leaders ... if so, sorry for me duplicating the same idea.

Glyn Davies said...

Trefor - Agreed. The repayment rules must apply to allbackbenchers as well.

Christopher - Seems there are some similaritie sto what DC did yesterday with his scrutiny committee. MPs are having to repay money that passed the Fees Office test but not the Cameron test.

Jeff - I was selected as Parliamentary candidate for Montgomeryshire by 'open primary' - and it worked rather well. We probably had about 100 people turn up.

I still cannot see why MPs should be confined to living in rented housing if they do not wish to - and cost does count. The next scadal would be the huge cost to Governemnt of running the system. Just limit the allowance to what is considered acceptable, and ensure every claim ois made public as soon as its made. Fixed.

Precedent is our the British constitution - which allows for a degree of flexibility. However I do accept that if the increasingly cavalier appraoch to the constitution continues, the case for a written constitution may well grow.

Dr. Christopher Wood said...

Yes Glyn, re: DC's scrutiny committee.

The reality is obvious, whatever/regardess/seperate from what Parliament itself decides, each party can decide what its MP members can claim for and subject them to their own rules.

*ponders y this wasn't done yonks ago*

Afterall, a party can have its own rules (subject to obvious legal limitations).