The collective reputation of MPs has been burned to ash and the clean-up begins not a moment too soon. MPs of all parties have been shamed, but it has been most galling when associated with people on the left, who were first elected by telling voters they would change the rules – in politics and beyond – to make Britain better and fairer. Labour activists who go door to door for them have been on the receiving end of public anger and are themselves furious.
The mantra often repeated is “my claims were within the rules”, but this is a complete irrelevance when the claims do not stand up to moral scrutiny. How can they not see this?
It appears they have been deafened to political reality by the siren songs of vested interest, manifested in the deference of Commons police and staff, the patronage of the whips, the Speaker’s offices and the indulgence of the fees office. To the public, it seems they have been rewarded with TVs, kitchens, massage chairs and imaginary mortgages for doing so. If politics in Britain is to have a future, all this must change.
Another future is possible. We are two Labour politicians but there are many more of us – parliamentary candidates, councillors and activists – who still believe in what Harold Wilson called the “moral crusade” of our party. We are all putting our hearts and souls into it and a better future for our communities.
Most of our politicians are idealistic and well-intentioned. The corrupt are few, and now is the time for them to be driven from office by the many who want to rebuild trust in what should be an honest and open vocation.
As the Commons considers what to do, Labour’s next generation has a duty to make a contribution if it does not wish to inherit the public’s contempt.
We must start by recognising that if we want to dismantle the “gentlemen’s club”, we must tackle the machine ¬politics out of which it was born. Root and branch constitutional reform is a prerequisite. We must elect the Lords, make the voting system more ¬proportional and end the degraded adversarial culture of Westminster, as exemplified by the so-called theatre of prime minister’s questions.
The Labour party must change too. MPs who have acted within the rules but outside the bounds of public acceptability should be deselected. There is a moral and political imperative to do so – we will not retain seats where we are offering damaged goods. The higher education minister David Lammy has mooted introducing primaries as a way of making parliamentary selection more open, and to involve the public. The clamour for this is growing.
But first, changes to MPs’ expenses and the election of the Speaker are imminent. Gordon Brown’s proposal of an independent parliamentary standards regulator, responsible for pay and allowances, is welcome. Expenses should now be fully published online and investigated without further delay, with absolute application of the law towards MPs found to have broken it.
Whatever shape the new expenses system takes, one principle should win out: there must be an end to any privileges that set MPs apart from the people they represent – no first class travel, no London congestion charge reclaim, and no claims for anything that is not directly related to the work of being an MP.
In 1994, the then Labour leader, John Smith, said: “The opportunity to serve our country – that is all we ask.” Service.
That is what our parliamentarians need to remember as they consider reform. The time has come to serve the people, not politicians.