What the doctor ordered

21 May 09
Comprehensive Area Assessments should help improve the nation’s health by focusing on local partnerships

Who would be an elected politician? The mood at Westminster among MPs is one of despair and — at least among the shrewder ones — of shame. The latest stories about MPs’ expenses have brought to the surface a mood of public anger against mainstream politicians that could have profound and lasting effects.

The expenses row is sensationalist, but not an aberration. There has been a growing mood of disillusionment with conventional party politics, a sense of Westminster politicians being out-of-touch and unresponsive. That has been exacerbated by the recession. Recent polls have shown an increase in the number of ‘don’t knows’ on the question of which of the main parties would best deal with the economic troubles.

The weakening in the authority of mainstream politicians has been shown by the Gurkha saga. The government was thrown completely on the defensive by actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley’s brilliant propaganda exercise on behalf of former Gurkha soldiers seeking the right to enter Britain. No matter that ministers had relaxed entry requirements and there are serious questions about allowing free entry to relatives. Lumley has seemed to be pulling the strings, as shown by her televised encounter with Phil Woolas, the immigration minister. And when the government was defeated in the Commons, Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders competed to be in the same pictures as Lumley, knowing she would confer legitimacy on them.

The expenses row has reinforced voters’ ingrained doubts about MPs: that they are in it for themselves and all as bad as each other. The problem with the disclosures is, paradoxically, not that the rules have been broken as they were by Derek Conway, for example. It is that many MPs have exploited the system within the existing rules to maximise the personal benefit to themselves.

It is true that most MPs, like most councillors or MEPs, are hard working and are not corrupt. But that line is now harder to defend. It is not just the occasional wrongdoer but a pattern of behaviour that is clearly unacceptable to most voters: whether it is ‘flipping’, that is shifting the designation of your main and other home to get most money, or buying extravagant items.

The revulsion was shown in a Populus poll for The Times earlier this week when eight or nine out of ten people said all parties were as bad as each other. Most significantly, they agreed that, even if the claims were within the rules, MPs should still never have claimed for many items.

It is no good arguing that the system is flawed and needs replacing. Obviously that is true. But that is not good enough. The failure of many MPs to take responsibility for their actions has produced a climate of moral ambiguity. The problem is how do you draw a line, especially when the letter of the rules has not been broken and when so many MPs are implicated? How do you distinguish between right and wrong?

Of course, the flood of stories about expenses will end before long. A new system will be put in place, though the Committee on Standards in Public Life is still taking too long over its inquiry and is not reflecting the urgency required to stem the erosion of public confidence. But even when changes are agreed, the damage will be longer lasting.

The Populus poll indicated how the public backlash might be initially reflected — in a rejection of the main parties at the ballot box. Its recent poll showed a four-point drop in support for both the Conservatives and Labour and similar rises in backing for the LibDems and for other parties, including the nationalists, the UK Independence Party, the British National Party and the Greens. This new mood has been caught by former Tory minister Norman Tebbit, who has urged voters to boycott the main parties in the European elections. And two polls have shown support for other parties at more than 20% in the European election on June 4, though this might understate how they actually perform on the day.

To a large extent, this might be a short-lived protest vote, as the surge in support for the Greens was in 1989, and for Ukip was in 1999. The rise in support was not sustained at subsequent general elections, when neither party came anywhere near winning a seat — the proportional system used at European elections exaggerates minority parties’ support. So there is a danger of over-hype and panic — as well as some dubious moralising — if, say, the BNP does win one or more seats at the European elections next month. It will not be the start of the rise of fascism in Britain, or anything like it.

However, even if there is a danger of hysteria, there is a real challenge for the main parties and for Westminster politicians. They not only need to clean up the expenses system and put new leadership in place in Parliament, they also need to show they are responding to broader voter concerns on the economy and public services. But their own personal conduct is inextricably tied in with the broader reputation of Parliament and mainstream politics.


Peter Riddell is chief political commentator of The Times and senior fellow of the Institute for Government


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