The 2000s began with the end of Bill Clinton’s US presidency limping out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They finished with the UK House of Commons facing a collapse of public trust which is set to result in 1/3-1/2 of MPs leaving or losing their seats in the 2010 General Election, and trust in politicians at an all time low of 13%, according to IPSOS Mori. We went into the decade with the taste of the sleaze of the John Major administration still in our mouths, and, as a reminder, Jeffrey Archer charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice, a charge which was to see the man who had been selected to be Conservative candidate for Mayor of London sent to Belmarsh prison in 2001. We came out of it with the threat of prosecution hanging over a growing number of parliamentarians.
Given that Major’s men were up to their tricks throughout the 1990s, and the current crop of Expenses-scandal-sleaze MPs had been doing what they did since either the 1990s, or whenever they got elected, where did politics go wrong?
It’s a common misconception (pushed forward by those who hope to survive the storm) that it was the system which made MPs claim expenses to which they were not entitled. But this is manifestly untrue. No system makes people act in a dishonest way. Nobody was forced to break the law by claiming for mortgages which did not exist, nobody was forced to break the explicit parliamentary rule that expenses should not be managed in order to render a profit at the tax-payer’s expense, and nobody was forced to use the expenses system to claim for excesses such as moat cleaning, duck houses, and limed oak toilet seats (even as I write this one, I’m forced to think ‘did this really happen?’ Apparently, it did).
Also, how is it that so many of them did it? It’s been pointed out (by me, among other people) that the majority of MPs were not engaged in these practices. But a sufficiently large minority from all three parties (including my own, though to a lesser degree) have done so that the entire class of MPs is not merely under suspicion, but under complete derision.
Political parties are now changing the way in which they assess and select parliamentary candidates. But it’s fair to say that, in the 1990s and 2000s, candidates were not being assessed on the trustworthiness, although (especially in the ‘spin’ years), parties have always been interested in credibility.
So, what’s the difference?
Credibility is whether or not you appear trustworthy to people. Politicians with no interest in football have been told to bone up on the off-side rule in order to appear more credible in urban constituencies. Politicians who live in London but are standing in far-flung rural areas (ie, anywhere outside the M25 that is not 90% urban) are photographed in Barbour jackets. People change their accents, go through teeth-whitening procedures (because people with whiter teeth tell fewer lies… right), and discover obscure ancestries which link them to the constituency. Every ‘parachute’ candidate rents a flat where they intend to stand. Credibility can be bought for the right price with the right advice. It doesn’t always work — we all remember William Hague’s reverse base-ball cap, and David Cameron being photographed cycling to work, followed by a van full of his papers. But, despite these minor mishaps, David Cameron at least has shed most of the Eton / Oxford exclusive dining club / millionaire image that he grew up with.
Trustworthiness is something quite different. Self-evidently, many of the people we trusted were not worthy of our trust.
So, where do we go from here?
If we really want trustworthy politicians, we need to start voting for them. I think it’s fair to say that the big political parties have not got the message. There has not been a flurry to find candidates who are more honest than those of previous generations. The all-women, all-ethnic minority shortlist talk is not about increasing trustworthiness, but about increasing the overall credibility of the party that shortlists them. Actually, a desire to increase credibility without a search for honesty is a mark of the deepest untrustworthiness. Or bad faith, as we used to call it. But the big parties are counting on the public voting on party, political or tribal lines, not lines of trust. They believe that, after we’ve had our rant, we will still lump all politicians together as necessary evils, and get on with voting for the ones we would have voted for anyway. Therefore, we need to disappoint them, and severely.
But, given that every politician will be coming to us at the election with the claim that they are more trustworthy than the others, and given that the richest and best connected will be able to have the best advice and be able to buy the best services, how can we tell?
Here are my thoughts:
1) What did they do before politics?
People who have served the public, perhaps in charities, in the armed forces, in the muckier bits of the public sector, have a very different track record from those who made a killing in the city or played around with inherited wealth before being given a safe-seat. That doesn’t mean that people who work in the city are not trustworthy, or that inherited wealth makes people liars, but a track record of service in the past goes a long way towards underlining a promise that they will serve us in the future.
2) How hard did they have to work to get here?
The vast majority of expenses-scandal MPs have been in what are generally termed ‘safe-seats’. Check out someone’s political track-record. Have they faced disappointment and defeat in the past, or have they been handed easy victories? Easy victories don’t make someone untrustworthy, but the majority of those who cheated did have big majorities to shore them up.
3) Where does their money come from?
People whose every working hour is given to becoming richer are unlikely to give up the habit when they get elected. More importantly, there are some ways to get rich, or, get by, which are in the public interest, and some which are predatory in nature. Someone who trades on other people’s greed, weakness or ignorance in order to gain their money is unlikely to be trustworthy in parliament.
4) For sitting MPs, what have they done?
The ideal MP works hard, claims only reasonable expenses, and arranges their affairs so that there is not even a suggestion that they may be profiting at the public expense. If your MP is seldom in the House of Commons, has claimed extravagantly, or has made a fortune through publicly-funded property speculation, then there is very little reason to believe that they will change their ways in the next parliament.
5) What’s their position on second jobs?
Will your candidate be dedicating his or her paid time exclusively to the House of Commons, or will that time be shared with company directorships, business dealings, lobbying firms and lucrative contracts? The rules, it appears, will not be changing to ensure that they do not, so it’s a good indicator of just how trustworthy they really are. For sitting MPs, you can easily check the register. For candidates, you can write to them or ask them at a public meeting whether they will be retaining any of these income streams, and whether they can guarantee to make the House of Commons their sole source of income. Taking a second job does not make someone necessarily untrustworthy, but, if someone is promising to dedicate their life to serving you in the next parliament, you can legitimately question how much time that will leave them for other things.
6) How do they respond to criticism?
No-one likes being criticised, but it’s instructive to see how people behave when they are accused of an impropriety. Some people flare up, some people become very sad, some people become very earnest. All of these are normal reactions. But some people demonstrate consummate skill in deflecting the criticism. This isn’t necessarily a sign that they are untrustworthy, but, taken with the other indicators, it can reenforce what you already know. Jack Straw, who isn’t from my party, always gets very agitated when people criticise him on Radio 4. A friend of mine who worked with him tells me that he is, in person, very trustworthy. Peter Mandelson, from that same party, is always very smooth in the face of criticism. Partly that’s his job, but, equally, the word is that he is not necessarily the first person you would want to trust.
7) How hard do they try to be credible?
Finally — and for this you need to really meet them and look them in the eye — how hard are they trying to be credible? You probably won’t be able to tell if they’ve had their teeth whitened (some people have naturally white teeth), but, when you talk to them, if you move off the usual subjects, you can get a fairly good impression about whether they are happy to talk about anything, or always want to move the conversation back to them, their credibility, the uncredibility of other candidates, the sins of other parties. Anyone who is too desperate to have you trust them — like a car salesman who keeps saying “I’ll be honest with you” — is probably not someone you should be trusting. Again, some people are naturally eager to make friends. But, generally, those people are more natural at it.
I don’t want to suggest that everyone who fails these tests is a liar, and, I’m sure, there are people even now coaching would-be MPs about how to pass these tests, or others like them. But, if we have no tests, then we are left only with what the candidates tell us about themselves. With their credibility, not their trustworthiness. If you don’t like these, then write down what things would make you trust or distrust someone. But do it, and then vote on it.
Otherwise, as we enter the 2010s, rather than the government we really want, we will once again elect the government we deserve.
Many people will wish to point out that the decade ends at the end of 2010, and the new decade begins in 2011. I do agree with them. However, the arbitrary decade beginning with the year 2000, which was celebrated (somewhat bizarrely), as the Millennium (bizarrely because, notwithstanding questions about year 0, nothing in particular happened in the Year 1000 for us to commemorate) has reached an end, and it is that decade which I am describing.