expenses

Taxpayer, voter, citizen or stakeholder?

Here’s another question to try at home. Are you a taxpayer, a voter, a citizen, or a stakeholder? Of course, you are quite possibly all four, but which are you really? The nuances are quite different — but if we allow ourselves to be guided into one or other, the consequences are profound.

It was Aristotle ((Politics, Book V)) who suggested there were six kinds of government — three good, and three bad. Good governments, he suggested, were monarchies, aristocracies and polities. Bad governments were tyrannies, oligarchies and — indeed — democracies. That’s probably an arrangement which would surprise most modern people, but Aristotle uses the words in a slightly (or entirely) different sense. A monarchy, to Aristotle, was government by a single benign ruler, whereas tyranny was a government by a single, selfish, ruler. Aristotle’s monarchy had no particular connotations of hereditary monarchy, though he probably would have naturally seen things in that light. After all, he was tutor to Alexander, who rose to power because his father was Philip of Macedon. Aristocracy, to Aristotle, was government by the few noble — that is to say, by those who were better, more virtuous, more able to govern. We would probably talk about a meritocracy. An oligarchy was government by a few who acted selfishly. A democracy was government by the commoners, acting selfishly, whereas polity was a society governed by all for the benefit of all. Or more or less. You don’t want to spend too much time in Aristotle, because he goes on to expound the importance of slavery as an institution.

Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and we see the American presidential system showing some signs of the single, benign ruler. Some would say that Tony Blair was taking us fast down that route when in office. Let’s explore that for a moment. The problem with a single, benign, ruler, is that he can still be singly, benignly wrong. It’s a brave man today who would defend the second Iraq war, but, at the time, it was clear that Tony Blair really believed it was the right thing to do. The Blair government was often accused of spin and playing games, but it was when Blair acted in good conscience and with enormous conviction that he made the greatest mistake of his premiership. Blair talked incessantly, at least in the beginning, about a stakeholder society, and this is a notion which fits well with his style of premiership. The single ruler will make the decisions, but everyone has a stake in their outcomes, and so we ought all to behave well together, because this will result in better outcomes.

The term ‘stakeholder’ betrayed — I think — more of the Blair agenda than it was intended. If you have ever used the simple business tool the stakeholder analysis, then you will know that stakeholders are categorised by their interest and their influence. Those with high interest and high influence are engaged, those with low interest and high influence are kept informed, those with low interest and low influence are, simply, ignored. In a stakeholder society, the monarch, overlord, president, executive prime-minister, or what you will, makes judgements about who he can safely ignore, and who he must assiduously court — in other words, his courtiers. Take away the ruffs and frills of the court of Elizabeth I, and you see something alarmingly close to the stakeholder economy which existed under the government of Tony Blair in the time of Elizabeth II.

I suspect nobody alive today would defend aristocracy as a form of government if that meant allowing hereditary peers to lead us. But our civil service — a shadow government if ever there was one — is a meritocracy: a self-selecting government by the few brightest and best. We could argue about how bright and how best civil servants really are, but their entire framework, recruitment process and rewards system is designed to promote the most able at the expense of the least able. Given the amount of power which senior civil-servants wield, we should accept that, at least to some extent, we live in that very aristocracy.

But think again. An oligarchy is government by the few acting selfishly. But this is exactly the way in which we behave when we describe ourselves as ‘the taxpayer’, at least, if we do so to distinguish ourselves from benefit-claimants, asylum seekers, children in school, students in college, or pensioners. I’m always astonished when I hear people describe themselves in those terms, but I hear it often. Do we really believe that payment of taxes makes us more able or deserving of being allowed to run the country? And, if we do so, do we really want to make money the measure of all things? One would hope not. But, in the light of the recent MP expenses and second-jobs scandals, we give a strong impression that the only thing we are looking for in our politicians is cheap, value-for-money, bargain-basement politics. I don’t, won’t, and never have defended MPs who pilfered the public purse for personal profit. But the more we focus on that particular aspect of their conduct, the more we push ourselves into the mould of a tax-payer oligarchy.

We protest, strongly, if anyone tries to suggest that democracy is not the best thing there can be. Certainly, as a Liberal-Democrat, I would strongly assert democracy over monarchy, aristocracy and oligarchy. But perhaps we should side with Aristotle a little. When voters vote selfishly, we see the tyranny of the 51% majority. Voters can arbitrarily choose parties — such as the BNP — whose programme involves the removal of the rights of minorities. Voters can arbitrarily vote to punish the very wealthy, or, indeed, the very poor. As elections come up, politicians may posture on taking away the benefit rights of single mothers, or gypsies, or the under 25s who appear to be not working hard enough to find a diminishing number of jobs. If we see ourselves purely as voters, and we vote on a purely selfish basis, we discover very quickly the limits of the social contract.

The liberal-democracy in which we live, or, at least, the one in which some of us live, is made up not of stakeholders nor taxpayers nor voters, but of citizens. It is the Aristotelian ‘polity’ — a state where all participate in governance, for the benefit of all. Our participation is irrespective of the amount of taxes we pay, and also irrespective of the extent to which we contribute towards the particular kind of society that our overlord believes is best for us. Whether we have high interest or low interest in the government’s favourite programme, we can, and should, play an active role in our public life. And we should do so irrespective of whether a particular politician promises us personal advantage over our neighbours.

Taxpayer, voter, citizen, stakeholder. Just words. But their use in the daily dialogue of media and politics fundamentally shapes our perceptions. Do we care most if our MPs claim more or less expensive, or do we care most (without ignoring their expenses) whether or not they are good MPs? Do we care most that politicians offer us more, or do we care about the general good of society? Are we content to let our ‘betters’ run the country, while we enjoy the Olympic Games, Big Brother and low food prices (circuses and bread, thus)? To what extent are we prepared to use our voices and our votes to protect the unpopular — the group which is always the most vulnerable in a democracy.

We should choose our words carefully.

Crowdsourcers shame Telegraph

Crowdsourcing — an idea that suggests that many people working on their own on a collective project can accomplish great things — has put paid to the Daily Telegraph’s claims that only the vast resources of a major commercial newspaper could possibly have uncovered MP expenses abuse. And it has done it through the mediation of the Telegraph’s derided rival, The Guardian.

Originally put forward in a Wired Magazine article, and subsequently in a book by Jeff Howe, crowdsourcing harnasses the skills of the many (as opposed to — dare we say it in this context? — the lust for blood of the mob) to analyse data or to chew over a problem. In this particular case, Guardian readers, and, we can assume, other bloggers and webites, have been combing through the now-published MP expenses data. Despite the blanking out of crucial data, crowdsourcers have already begun to build up powerful profiles of who is spending how much on what.

More important than the actual method used — although it is important — is the fact that all this user-researched data means that finally we, the people, have access to our MPs’ expenses claims, not in driblets issued by the Daily Telegraph to further its own ill-concealed political agenda, nor in the avalanche of mind-numbing detail on which civil servants and politicians have been counting to put us off looking, but in clear, concise analysis, which can be checked by anyone who wants to.

This is what Freedom of the Press is all about — the freedom for any newspaper, or, in this blogging age, any citizen-journalist, to look at the facts for themselves, come to a conclusion, and put forward their own interpretation. Suddenly we are no longer in the hands of a journalistic-elite, themselves under the thumb of a right-wing editor.

This freedom has come too little too late. Too late for Cameron’s ‘old-guard’, who are set to be swept away in sweeping purges. And certainly too late for us collectively to have any faith in the financial probity of our politicians. And too little to set our minds at ease that now everything is in the open and nothing is being hidden. If you haven’t looked at the MP expenses yourself yet, then do. There is something uniquely terrifying about the way in which whole sections have been blacked out, with (crucially, in my mind) no annotations to indicate the reason for the black out nor the text minus the offending details. Nothing is more compelling in telling us that our interests are deemed as less important than those of an MP. Even though any private detective could dig up the real information (or just buy it from the Telegraph) without a great deal of difficulty.

Guardian readers have so far crawled through 700,000 heavily edited documents. The degree of scrutiny they have brought to it is vastly more than the Telegraph’s — in fact, we now wonder if the Telegraph was not tipped off to go straight for the juicier items, since they, in passing, overlooked so many other interesting things.

More to the point, though, is that the Guardian readers are enabling information to be aggregated. We know now that the Tories claim the most for food. But the aggregations also allow us to compare MP total costs for various things with their actual performance in the House of Commons, thanks to a little additional cross-referencing with TheyWorkForYou.Com.

Once MP second job information is published at the start of July, we will be in a position to see a league table of MP value for money. It will not placate the public. But it may give some old, recalcitrant and now entirely embittered MPs the push they need to, in the time honoured phrase, ‘pursue career interests elsewhere’.

Cameron’s False Step

Memo on expenses seen as ‘invitation to deselect’ — The Guardian.
David Cameron has been sailing close to the wind for some time, but, now we see the first (to mix a metaphor) truly false step. There was already suspicion that he was using the expenses crisis to sweep aside the ‘old guard’, and now a leaked memo sent by chairman of the Tory National Convention (and Cameron’s man) Jeremy Middleton, has appeared to confirm this.

The issue is not that ‘bed-blockers’, as they are rather unceremoniously being referred to, should not be moved on. Actually, I would favour a system which created incentives for those whose political careers had essentially finished to vacate the House of Commons. Rather, it is that David Cameron has unmasked himself as an old-fashioned opportunist, willing to make the most of the old proverb about ill-winds, in order to turn a national crisis of trust into a boost for his own personal power.

Tony Blair accomplished something rather of the same sort when he faced down the Clause 4 people. But he did it rather better, and he did it very honestly, and a lot of people who disliked his policy admired his courage in doing so. Lest we forget, this is the Tony Blair before he became Prime Minister who was going to go on to rescue Labour from an 18 year electoral drought.

Are Old Tories the problem? Would the world be a better place if they were entirely replaced by New Tories? It seems to me self-evident that there is value in a mixed House of Commons — not all old, but not all young either. Not all worn-down by experience, but not all fresh-faced and accident-prone either. To my mind — though this is perhaps uncharitable — the acquisition of power and the exercise of its privileges, notwithstanding the opinions of the taxpayer, are the hallmarks of what the Conservative Party has always stood for. Under Thatcher the promise was that a greater and greater proportion of the population would enter this privileged state, which was the promise that lured Middle Britain (coupled with Labour’s abject failure in the Winter of Discontent). Lured it, and kept is skewered. Cameron may wish to take the Conservatives away from their past (although, one wonders, in what sense would they still be ‘conservatives’ if he did), but it is not enough to simply lead people away from something. One must lead them into something else. And it is this ‘something else’ which Cameron has failed to articulate.

To listen to him, one would imagine that New Conservatives are a posh branch of the Liberal Democrats. Green, clean, reformist, interested in the common man. The sort of local party you find in Winchester or Harrow. But — if you read Conservative Home — there seems to be no spirit of warming to the actual Liberal Democrats. The ‘Limp Dems’, they like to call us, accusing us of underhand tactics with out ‘Lib Dems winning here’ campaigns. Hatred of the Lib Dems seems to burn hotter than at any time since the 1930s.

There was a very clear neo-conservative ideology — almost a theology — set out in the Reagan-Bush years, and applied in the subsequent George W years. But that ideology is now largely identified with the trickle down approach of Thatcher-Reagan, and is surely one of the things that Cameron is trying to get away from. There was an older, kinder conservative ideology in the days of Ted Heath. But Cameron is clearly not advocating returning to that.

If he’s leading them forwards, where is ‘forwards’? According to Eric Pickles, 3,000 ordinary members of the public have written to him asking to be Conservative MPs. Evidently, those are 3,000 members of the public who believe they can do a better job than the current Conservative MPs. But what do those 3,000 believe? Do they believe anything, or have they concluded that the life of an MP is so easy that they have all the qualities needed, and ideology can be sorted out later. Because, truly, David Cameron has not told us what kind of Conservative party he expects, except that it will be a ‘better’ one. He has not told us what kind of MPs he expects, except that they will be more ‘honest’. He has not told us what kind of country he would like Britain to become. In as much as he has told us anything, it is contradictory. A Britain where taxes are lower, but spending is the same as Labour’s. A Britain which is more inclusive, but at the same time more anti-foreigner (or, at least, anti-European). A Britain which doesn’t allow banks to pull the economy down, but which simultaneously allows them to ‘flourish’ with less red-tape. Perhaps it is unfair to hang on Mr Cameron the promises he made before the credit-crunch came along. But, equally, if his policies were not suitable for a long-expected (at least by Vince Cable) and much predicted (again, by Lib-Dem Vince Cable) economic contraction, there is a real question about how valid or useful they were to start with. If David Cameron’s policy is no more than saying what is popular at the time he says it, then a Cameron Britain would lurch from one opportunistic position to another. Cameron leading Britain during a recession would be bad enough. Cameron leading Britain through a boom period would be recipe for disaster: he would stoke the economy far more than Gordon Brown ever did, creating the conditions for unwise investment and unbridled risk which have brought the world to its knees. We may not survive another such crisis.

No, ultimately, Cameron’s false step is not that he has angered time-served Tory backbenchers, but that he has revealed himself as a political opportunist.

Amid all the furore over expenses, it is political opportunism which we, as a nation, can least afford.

In the right direction

MPs with outside interests could be paid lower salary — The Times. Bill Cockburn, head of the Senior Salaries Review Board, has suggested that MPs with outside interests could be paid at a lower rate than ‘full time’ MPs. But Tories, who have disproportionately more outside incomes than MPs of other parties, are already opposing the suggestion.

The simple truth is that, in any other walk of life, a member of staff who is not available for work for the contracted amount of time is paid at a lower rate. Of course, many constituency voters might baulk at the fact that their MP was only part-time — if they knew about it. Although website www.theyworkforyou.com attempts to track MP outside employments, it will only be from 1 July this year that MPs are required to disclose them. Naturally, many MPs are now curtailing their outside interests to limit that damage this disclosure will bring.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. In my opinion, an MP who works an outside job, or who benefits as a company director (remembering that most companies want MPs as directors because they think it will benefit them) is not concentrating fully on the job.

Actually, I feel that differential salaries is only a step in the right direction. Who should decide which constituencies get part-time MPs, and which get full time MPs? Or should a part-time MP job-share with another part-time MP? In that case, which of them would get to vote on which issues, or would their votes only count for half? Surely the only logical solution is to ban MPs from outside interests all together. If we are to recover any kind of trust at all, we must absolutely decouple money from politics.

What would actually make the most sense would be to freeze a new MP’s assets when they entered parliament, and unfreeze them — fully index linked — when they left. If properly structured, there could be serious incentives to quit. If MPs lived simply as MPs, a generous pension would help those who realised that they had essentially finished what they joined the House for to move on, rather than hanging in for as long as possible, which is what many superannuated politicians seem to do now.

It’s often said that paying any less than the current salary would not attract the ‘right’ kind of people. Evidently there is a kind of person who can be had for £66,000 a year, but not for less. From my point of view, someone who believes that they should be allowed to supplement this income by spending less time on their duties is not remotely the ‘right’ kind of person. Whether they supplement their income through property speculation, or through milking the expenses train, or through outside jobs, what we are talking about is simply greed. And, in my book, greed is not the qualification which sets a man or woman apart as the person who should serve the public in Westminster.

But differential pay is a step in the right direction — provided that the differential is sufficient that the MP makes no profit from outside interests at all.

Money and power may mix now, but they should not in future.

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