expenses

In the nation’s interests

I have received howls of protest over the last few days from Lib Dem members, people who voted Lib Dem but usually vote Labour, and people who have never voted Lib Dem and never intend to. Some have demanded that Nick Clegg immediately fall into line behind Cameron and stop negotiating for ‘party advantage’. Some have insisted that for Clegg to co-ally would be a betrayal of all that is most sacred. Some have told me that talking to Labour was equivalent to state treachery, and Clegg can never be trusted again. By email, phone, Facebook, txt, tweet and even visits to my door, and, bizarrest of all, an email sent from Australia by someone I had never heard of directed to all Lib Dem candidates who contested the election, it’s been made clear to me that whatever Nick Clegg did, not everyone would be happy.

I have to confess I’ve struggled to get quite as emotionally caught up in this as some people. Those of us who stand for parliament do so with an underlying notion of public service. Of course we want our party to win. And there is always personal ambition: we want to be in there, making the decisions, with our fingers on the turning of the world. But nobody would go through the five weeks of gruelling punishment, preceded by four years of selection and campaigning, preceded in turn by how ever many years of becoming involved and going through a candidate approval process, unless there was more than simply the desire for our team to win.

Nick Clegg was always honour-bound to make his decision in the nation’s best interests. Anything less would have simply ruled him unfit to be a party leader.

The only question was: what decision would be in the nation’s best interests?

I will put my cards on the table: after last year’s expenses debacle, and this year’s scandal over the Ashcroft million, electoral reform seems to me to be one of the nation’s most important and pressing concerns. The result of the General Election — no clear majority in parliament, nothing like a majority in the popular vote (Tories polled only 12% more than Lib Dems, lest we forget, but gained more than five times as many seats) — demonstrates very clearly that the public are not satisfied.

But, although pressing, electoral reform is not the most pressing concern. I do not accept the view of the scaremongerers that Britain is about to go the way of Greece. David Cameron has already had to eat his words that a hung parliament would spell economic disaster. But it is true that the economy is right at the top of the list of things that need to be fixed now, and fixed right.

A coalition with Labour was always a long-shot, and Clegg was right to honour his election pledge and talk first to the party with the most votes. But he was also right to at least attempt a deal with Labour. This was not treachery, as some of the Tory press and some of my own correspondents have suggested, but a necessary and entirely honourable step: Clegg was duty bound to explore both feasible possibilities as he decided for the United Kingdom who should be the next prime minister.

For the record, I think it would have been possible to do it. (I do not say that it would have necessarily been the best thing, but I do say that it would have been possible). Those who argued that this was undemocratic forget the very shaky ground on which they stand: Labour and the Lib Dems between them gained more than 50% of the popular vote, although, because of our misrepresentative system, this was not quite 50% of the seats in parliament. Labour certainly seemed ready to promise a much swifter, much surer route to electoral reform. And Gordon Brown nobly was willing to accept Nick Clegg’s other election promise — that, whatever happened, Brown would not continue as Prime Minister.

But it was Labour MPs themselves who made it quite clear that they had no real interest in staying in government. From the point that (then, still) government ministers went on the record in public stating this, the chances of a deal with Labour were over.

Many Lib Dem voters find the coalition with the Conservatives distasteful. I personally remained on good terms with all the candidates in the Stratford election, except for the BNP who never attended any of the debates and with whom I never spoke. But there have been instances where Tory attacks were brutal and unfounded. And we have endured the jeers and scorn of the Tory press barons for more than a generation.

It is certainly true that very few will have voted Lib Dem with the aim of putting David Cameron in government.

But Nick Clegg still had to put the nation’s interest ahead of his own. The choice between a Conservative minority government which would be almost certain to fall in recriminations within six months, in which time it would have made little real progress in tackling the economic crisis, and none at all in electoral reform, or a true Lib Dem Con coalition, was one that simply could not be made in any other way from the way it has been made.

The solution is not perfect. David Cameron could have divested himself of the lacklustre George Osborne. If having Vince Cable as chancellor was too much to swallow (though it would have pleased the nation, and the markets), Ken Clarke was waiting in the wings, the only member of Cameron’s team who had ever served in a senior role in a government. There could have been (and should have) a commitment to a referendum on true electoral reform, not merely the disproportional Alternative Vote (AV) system. If the Conservatives believe that the public has no appetite for electoral reform, then they should have agreed to a referendum on the real issue. If they were willing to accept a grudging compromise and no more, they should have offered a simple bill on AV as Labour did, and left it at that. The nation is to be put to the trouble and expense of a referendum without being allowed to vote on the real topic of discussion.

Nonetheless, the prospect of an autumn election has receded to the horizon. Cameron’s lightweight team will be strongly bolstered by 5 Lib Dem cabinet ministers, and a total of 20 Lib Dems across his ministries.

Lib Dem fortunes at the next election will almost certainly suffer, and there will equally certainly be a spate of recriminations and even member-resignations. And this is the true mark of Nick Clegg’s leadership: at personal cost, he has put the interests of the nation first.

Election date confirmed

Brown to go to Queen on 6 April — BBC. Gordon Brown is set to go to the Queen tomorrow for an election date on 6 May, according to the BBC. This brings to an end the most remarkable sitting of parliament in recent years:

• Tony Blair was elected in 2005. Gordon Brown was never elected, neither by the UK population, nor even by his own party, as no-one stood against him and he won the contest by default when Blair stood down.
• The expenses scandal, though run as a major newspaper publishing venture by the Daily Telegraph, was actually the fruit of years of work by Heather Brooke.
• Michael Martin was the first speaker of the House of Commons to be forced to resign since Sir John Trevor in 1695
• More MPs will stand down at this election than any other since the end of the second world war. 200 are expected to stand down, including John Maples, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who announced his intention on 10 January.
• Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the longest parliament in recent memory. Five years and one day will have elapsed between this election and the last one. John Major’s term was ended by the election on 1 May 1997, five years and 21 days after he won on 9 April 1992. Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 to 1992 was also longer than this sitting. Prior to that, the longest sitting since the war was 8 October 1959 to 15 October 1964. However, although there can be a gap of more than five years between the elections, the maximum length of a parliament itself is 5 years.

Job Descriptions for MPs?

By far the biggest story of the parliament-which-is-soon-to-end is the expenses of Members of Parliament. Expenses, perks, salary, general behaviour. To a certain extent, we ought to celebrate the final ending of the age of deference, when we, the people, now feel able to challenge the political class to explain how they spend our money.

But the elephant in the room (this cliché has become very common recently) is the question of what MPs actually do. Cabinet ministers, of course, run government departments. Sort of. Actually, civil servants run government departments, and cabinet ministers (if they are wise) set policy or (if foolish) get involved in top-level executive decisions. Junior ministers, naturally, do what their senior colleagues do, but less so. The opposition is there to hold the government to account, and back-benchers of the government are… well… to provide the necessary support for the government to be a government.

If MPs are merely voting fodder or some kind of inspection agency, then their senior-management level salaries look a bit over-priced. Some MPs ask barely more than one or two parliamentary questions a year — not the sort of thing which holds anyone to much account. There are All Party Parliamentary Groups on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from human trafficking (a substantially overlooked topic) to beer, a subject which is seldom overlooked. However, these APPGs have no direct influence on the activity of government. There are also select committees, which form part of the process of law-making. But, again, quite a few MPs are not members of any select committees. These are typically the MPs who ask the fewest parliamentary questions.

Members of Parliament have, at least since the war in most areas, supplemented their parliamentary duties with constituency duties. These range from holding surgeries as semi-surrogate social workers, to an endless round of openings and parties. MPs also respond to constituents’ letters, and raise issues of importance with local government. But, again, they raise issues, but have no direct authority. Naturally, in a public sector organisation, a letter from an MP carries a certain weight. But only a certain weight. It is soft influence, not hard impact.

Ask a member of the public exactly what an MP does, and you may get a fairly vague answer. Ask an MP what MPs do, and the answer can be equally vague. To restore trust in politicians, we need job descriptions.

To someone who has lived without one, a job description may seem threatening. MPs have muttered about the unfairness of being told what to do, and how to live. The phrase ‘living on rations’ has cropped up.

But the truth is, the entirely unregulated life of an MP can be as bad for them as it is for the people they serve. A friend of mine was told by his doctor that if he did not stand down as MP for a seat he had famously won a few years before, then he would be dead in five years. Endlessly late nights, a culture which emphasises alcohol consumption, and a demanding programme which is effectively a 40 hour week in Westminster supplemented by a 40 hour week in the constituency, is not good for the MP, nor is it good for the decisions they should be making on our behalf. There is a reason why good companies do not let their senior managers overwork — overworked managers gain progressively fewer results the longer they extend their hours.

The other benefit of a really clear job description is that, if an MP fails in it, he or she could actually be removed. The ability for the electorate to remove failing MPs is part of Liberal Democrat national policy. An MP who seldom turns up at the House of Commons, is rarely in the constituency, and whose letters are written by a team of poorly paid researchers working from a fairly elementary rule-book, is not earning the money we pay them. Worse, he or she is preventing a more diligent, hard-working person from representing the voters.

It is no surprise that all of the worst excesses of the expenses scandal were in ‘safe’ seats. An MP with no accountability framework, no means of removal, and no likelihood of even having to campaign hard when the General Election is called can casually disregard his or her duty. And, it seems, some, or even many, did.

Job descriptions, then. A simple summary of hours to be worked, outputs to be measured, methods of accountability, common standards and disciplinary procedures. Businesses discovered them decades ago. It’s time for the elected-sector to make its way into the late 20th century. Perhaps as a step (heaven help them) into the 21st.

Wrong answer too late.

In tonight’s vote the Commons opted for a national referendum on the Alternative Vote as a replacement for our current first past the post system. The referendum would cost an estimated £80m, but, because the Government has delayed so long (almost 13 years, in fact), it is unlikely that the bill will be passed before the General Election, and therefore even less likely that any referendum will take place.

More seriously, Alternative Vote is not a true proportional system — up to 49 per cent of the votes would still be discarded, meaning that a government can still be elected with an absolute majority on around 30 per cent of the total national vote.

This paragraph is going to be short and mercifully simple. But if you lack the Liberal Democrat passion for discussing complex voting systems, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph.

So: in first past the post, you put down one X on the ballot paper, and, late that night, the candidate with the most Xs wins. The candidate may have gained not much more than 1/3rd of the total vote, and, often, only three quarters of the voters will have voted. As trust in politics declines, the numbers voting shrinks, and so our elected leaders have less and less of a mandate. The alternative vote system gives you a 1-2-3 etc choice of your favourite, second favourite, and so on. When the votes are counted, the least successful candidate is eliminated, and their second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. This carries on, until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote, and they are the winner. All the remaining votes are discarded. Although this is marginally more successful at giving people an MP they are happy with, it does not mean at all that the government is elected based on the votes cast across Britain. There’s a variation, AV plus, which I won’t go into, which is a much more proportional system. Truly proportional voting comes with the Single Transferable Vote, which is hideous to work out on paper, but which computers can do as easily as AV, AV plus, or even first past the post. And, these days, even the government has computers.

So where does that leave us? The one thing that the Alternative Vote Labour has pushed for tonight will give us is a system where it is much harder for a Conservative government ever to be elected. Gordon Brown may be counting on getting the support of Lib-Dems because of his fig-leaf gesture towards a proportional system, but, in truth, this is tinkering with the electoral system in order to change the result of future elections.

If Labour had done this, as it originally promised, when it first came to power, then we might have avoided much of the collapse of trust in politicians of the last ten years. Even Alternative Vote reduces the number of ‘safe’ seats which play no real role in an election. And it is in the safe seats that we have seen the greatest abuse of expenses. But this death-bed conversion smacks of nothing more than desperation. And it is a desperation which will surely further undermine the residual confidence the electorate has in government.

Quite simply, it is the wrong answer, too late.

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