Unfinished Business: Politics Has Taken a Pounding. Constitutional Reforms Are Needed-But It May Be Too Late for Labour to Complete the Job

By Grice, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), May 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

Unfinished Business: Politics Has Taken a Pounding. Constitutional Reforms Are Needed-But It May Be Too Late for Labour to Complete the Job


Grice, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Some senior Labour and Tory figures hope privately that the main beneficiary of the anti-politics mood sweeping the country will be the UK Independence Party. That tells us just how deep is the crisis facing mainstream politics after the disclosures that many MPs abused the system of parliamentary expenses.

Investing their hopes in an anti-European party that David Cameron once described as mostly "fruit cakes, loonies and closet racists" is code for saying they hope the British National Party will not win its first seats in the election for the European Parliament on 4 June. The opinion polls, which show growing support for the minority parties, suggest Ukip is breathing down Labour's neck and could push it into fourth place, and put a rejuvenated Green Party ahead of the BNP. Despite that, Tory and Labour officials fear many voters who tell pollsters they will back Ukip will put their cross next to the BNP in the polling booth. They suspect the furore over expenses will help the far-right party to win three or four seats in the European Parliament.

Newspapers encourage the anti-politics mood, colluding with the Tories by whipping up demands for an early general election. There is a powerful argument for an election. But this is a trap for Gordon Brown: if he refuses to call one this year, he will be accused of blocking the ultimate method of renewing the House of Commons and giving the public a real say on the crisis. If he calls an election, Labour faces a meltdown that could put it out of power for a generation. A campaign would be dominated by the need to clean up a corrupt Commons rather than the economy-Brown's last remaining, if dwindling, hope of avoiding defeat.

Brown can't win, in the other sense of the word. When he points the Speaker of the Commons, Michael Martin, towards the exit door, he is accused of dithering because he didn't go public. The media portray him as being outflanked by Cameron, even though he has suspended two MPs from the Parliamentary Labour Party and dismissed a minister, while the Tory leader has yet to remove the whip from anyone.

Even before the expenses furore, the Prime Minister had enough problems. Another wobble over whether he is the right man to lead Labour into the general election is inevitable after next month's county council and European polls. However, there is no sign of the cabinet coup that almost happened last year, and Brown allies are already saying that no governing party could escape punishment after the pounding politics has taken in the past two weeks. And, back in the real world, there is the recession.

Something very big is happening in politics and even the control freaks are at the mercy of events. No one knows where this will end. Tossing the bodies of a few deselected MPs to angry voters is unlikely to quell their anger or satisfy their hunger for real change. The far-reaching implications are dawning on the parties. Labour, in particular, worries how it could possibly fight a general election without either big donors or unpaid foot soldiers, some of whom are so furious about MPs' behaviour that they are refusing to work for next month's campaign.

There is another side to the expenses story. Most MPs claim about [pounds sterling]150,000 a year in expenses, yet about two-thirds of that goes straight from parliament to their staff. The despised and now doomed second homes allowance costs taxpayers only [pounds sterling]12m a year (compared to [pound sterling]56m on MPs' staff and [pounds sterling]57m on salaries). In my experience, the vast majority of MPs go into politics for good reasons, not to make money. But the sheer volume of the scams and fiddles is shocking. It is no longer possible to argue that there are only a few bad apples in the Westminster barrel. Many MPs profess surprise, too. But they can't all be shocked, can they?

Not surprisingly, the Daily Telegraph did not do Labour any favours with its landmark, if paid-for, scoop. …

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