expenses

Do we really need this ironic iPhone app?

Software manufacturer Satosoft have 1 released an iPhone application on the iTunes app store that lets you check your MP’s expenses, ring their constituency office, and send caustic emails. Its orientation is fairly clear, both from the description: “Satosoft give you the power to exercise your democratic right to ask one or all MP’s (sic) about their claims”, and from their first top ten: “Top Ten Highwaymen”.

The thing is, though, all the information that they include is freely available to the public, without the polemic, either on all kinds of free websites, or from another (free) iPhone application.

The typical price of an iPhone application is 59p. Some applications which fulfil major professional tasks, such as sound pressure level meters, or contain acres of information, such as a whole library of books, come in at £2 or so.

This one comes in at a wapping £3.49. Seriously, that’s a lot of money for an iPhone application, especially one which does no more than give you information you can have for free, for example, on www.theyworkforyou.com.

That is a fairly major level of irony. Satosoft, if they really do sell a reasonable number of these apps (defined by the 3 billion downloads that iPhone applications have had so far), will make far more money than the average MP has claimed in expenses.

Heather Brooke, who led the campaign for their disclosure, has yet to make those kind of profits from her work.

But even Satosoft’s prospective profits are trivial compared to the £millions that the Daily Telegraph has reportedly made from increased advertising revenues from its exclusive coverage of the debacle.

Something has changed in British politics, and dedicated campaigners like Heather Brooke, who essentially worked for nothing, deserve praise. But the moral position of Satosoft and the Daily Telegraph seems altogether more dubious. As I have said before, the majority of MPs did not ‘cheat’ on their expenses, although the post-hoc review has most of them paying back money merely on the basis that a single examiner decided on an arbitrary level for how expenses should be set, rail-roading every kind of process which would be applied in any kind of business. A proportion of MPs have made enormous profits exploiting the system. A small number of MPs — it appears — may have broken the law and actually acted fraudulently.

We need the clearest possible separation between those who acted uprightly and those who did not. Attempts to tar everyone with the same brush are unseemly. When they are linked to the hope of enormous profits, we are left with a distinct sense of the pot and the kettle.

Show 1 footnote

  1. they treat their name as a plural noun

Give parliament a clean start

Just 265 MPs have stated definitely that they will stand again, and parliamentary officials are predicting a quarter of MPs will eventually stand down before the General Election, according to the Daily Telegraph. Although this is set to be the biggest exodus in living memory, voters may legitimately be asking the question: “why aren’t more going?” We know that politics in Britain is broken. A large number of MPs who assisted in breaking it, by first voting against the disclosure of their expenses, and then through their unrepentant response when found out, are still staying. Should we really rehire the people who broke it to fix it?

Staying on too long in parliament is like staying too long as the captain of a sports team, when you no longer have the fitness and reactions to be there. I feel this somewhat keenly at the moment, since, as of 1 January, I have stepped down from captaining the West Midlands fencing team. At the age of 43, I am more than twice as old as half of the team, and it was time to move on. The upper age for politics is rather older, but even MPs need to recognise when it’s time to go. This time, though, it’s not retirement and pension which is the issue — it’s the simple fact that MPs have lost our confidence. For some this is an unfair ‘guilty by association’, but others lost our trust because they abused it. For the good of the team, they need to be off.

It appears, though, that not everyone has got the message. In fact, we have politicians who fought tooth and nail against Heather Brooke’s campaign for full disclosure of expenses, voted against it in parliament, and then tried to resurrect their careers and put one over on their opponents by representing themselves as the peoples’ champions when the Telegraph got hold of the story.

We are expecting a number of announcements over the next weeks. Some MPs can honourably step down, having worked hard for many years for the good of their constituents. They deserve our respect. Some MPs who are expenses-damaged but still holding on should go. That way, they can win back some of our respect, and ensure that the next parliament is given the best possible start with a clean slate.

It will be a long, hard job to win back the confidence of the public. But it is a job which must be done, no matter how hard, nor how long.

In 2010, demand better

British democracy has three problems. The vast majority of votes make no difference to who forms the government. The system persuades governments to go for short term wins at long term cost. Many politicians believe, or have believed, that you can get away with it.

Actually, we don’t have to have any of these things, and in 2010, we are in a position to demand better.

MPs are only beginning to get the message that they can no longer get away with it in the way they once did. Even that really only applies to expenses. I discovered recently that one MP was writing to newspapers to praise himself for not having to repay expenses, while at the same time making a profit of £1 million on a second home whose mortgage had been paid by the taxpayer. Clearly, he still believes he can get away with the second part, as long as he isn’t stained by the first. Some MPs appear to believe that they can conceal their background of privilege. Others appear to believe that past criminal behaviour will never come to haunt them. Many seem to think that a safe-seat means the electorate will never hold them to account for any of it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we should. Letters to the MP. Letters to the local newspaper. Reminding ourselves and our friends that we don’t have to put up with it. Changing the way we vote.

The bi-polar parliamentary system ensures there is little continuity from election to election. Even a party winning a second term can abandon the promises of its first term on the grounds that it has sought a new mandate for a new manifesto. More importantly, although it will probably be blamed for things which it does which later turn out poorly, it can almost guarantee not to be blamed for things which it doesn’t do. We are only in the situation regarding climate change now because successive governments did nothing. In the 1980s, instead of using North Sea oil money to build an infrastructure which no longer relied on fossil fuels, we spent the money getting ourselves out of recession and back into boom-and-bust. True, at the time we were mainly worried about when the oil ran out, and to a lesser extent about pollution. But both of those, if acted upon, would have been enough to help us stave off the catastrophe our grandchildren will now face. We don’t have to have two big parties which hate each other and use every opportunity to ridicule each other and scupper one another’s plans. Of course, any attempt to change this is met with the argument “this is how things have to work”. But they don’t. Other countries, not just the ones we tell jokes about, have multi-party systems, and parties and politicians are held responsible over the course of several parliaments.

In 2010, we can insist on grown-up politics. We can demand that our elected leaders work together for the common good. We do not have to tolerate bickering in the House of Commons. Once again, it will only change if we make sure our politicians know that it is what we expect and demand.

We now face the prospect of a General Election whose result may well be decided by ten or so swing seats up and down the country. No party is predicted to get anywhere near 50% of the vote. But one party or another may well discover it can form a government based on how many of those swing seats go which way. Those ten seats have, between them, less than a million voters. Turnout is likely to be around 70%. The winner in each of those seats will probably be winning with 35-45 per cent of the votes cast. The actual majority is liable to be 3-5 per cent in each of those seats. Which means that the fate of 61 million people may be settled by the swing votes of less than 100,000 people. In other words, less than 2% of the voters will decide the fate of all of us.

We all laughed at the way George W Bush won his first term despite the fact that most people voted for his opponent. But our system is more laughable than that.

We almost certainly do have to put up with this in 2010. We do not have to put up with afterwards. Again, change will only happen if we make it clear that this is what we want, and we are prepared to change our votes to get it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we owe it to ourselves to do so.

Decade of distrust reaches an end

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.

Coda
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.

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