"Let Them Eat Cake"

If ever we needed further proof that the rot in UK politics is not necessarily due to our membership of the EU but instead one of a domestic making, Denis MacShane’s tweet (above) regarding expenses and MPs’ cynically shredding documents is it.

Openingly mocking the electorate in this way, I would suggest, is not entirely wise…he might find ultimately that the consequences are far more unfortunate than a mere jail sentence

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Total Recall

One possible positive that may be garnered out of the debate yesterday on the Recall of MPs Bill is the fact that the debate is even happening at all is tacit acknowledgment within the Westminster that something has gone wrong with the system.

But it was of no surprise that Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith’s proposals, which would have excluded Parliament’s standards committee from any role in determining whether errant MPs should face re-election, was defeated – it is entirely within character that MPs would be somewhat reluctant to support reducing their powers with enthusiasm. It therefore was of some amusement the naive astonishment shown in some quarters on social media at MPs unwilling to give up powers.

All of this though misses the point. The debate regarding the recall of MPs is Westminster talking to itself – the proposal nothing more than a tinkering around the edges while in effect maintaining the status quo. Very much a politician’s solution then…

Unwittingly Zac Goldsmith betrays this view in his arguments in favour of his proposals by trying to persuade MPs and Ministers that they have nothing to fear from recall decided by the people because it would very rarely be used:

The third concern relates to the fear that Members would face endless recall attempts, amounting almost to a form of harassment, an issue raised several times in last week’s debate. I see no need for a limit, as the experience of recall around the world shows that its use is extremely rare and that it is used only in extreme circumstances. In 100 years of recall in the United States, where there are virtually no financial controls or controls on broadcasters and so on, it has happened only 20 times. There have been 40 recall referendums…

This argument has the backing of Douglas Carswell:

Far from leading to a flood of vexatious attempts to remove sitting MPs, this second stage makes it almost impossible to oust a sitting MP on partisan grounds. Note how few recall attempts have ever been successful in California. 

In other words, vote for this measure because it won’t make any difference at all. It’s a … er … curious argument to make for a democratic device to say the least.

It’s safe to assume that the great expenses scandal of 2009/10 is a cloud hanging over the recall debate, with examples such as Labour MP Margaret Moran going into hiding leaving her constituents unrepresented and they having no means to force a by-election.

Yet it is with some irony that the expenses scandal actually show up the ineffectiveness recall would have. While there was a lot of public anger, further provoked by MPs’ attempts to prevent disclosure under Freedom of Information, voters did not punish them electorally in 2010.

Many MPs (and over 50% sought re-election) who were embroiled in the financial scandal were still re-elected in the 2010 election. Take Alistair Darling for example, who abused taxpayer’s money by ‘flipping’ his two houses four times was re-elected in 2010 with an increased majority.

As this report from 2011 finds, titled “Electoral Accountability and the UK Parliamentary Expenses Scandal: Did Voters Punish Corrupt MPs?” the expenses scandal came low down voters’ priorities. This chimes with my own experience as a PPC in 2010 when the subject was never raised once on the doorstep nor in hustings.

The report finds instead that there was only a modest 1.5% voting impact on MPs implicated:

We find that implicated MPs received a vote share about 1.5 percentage points lower than non-implicated MPs (after controlling for incumbency, region, and previous constituency results). Intriguingly, we do not nd an association between vote share and either the amount the MP claimed in expenses or the amount an MP was required to repay…

The findings may not be so surprising when we consider that the representative ballot is a blunt instrument to deal with the complexities of voters’ concerns such as the economy, immigration and of course partisan competition. Thus the report comes to an interesting conclusion:

The degree to which voters punished individual MPs for expenses abuses (a drop in vote share of about 1.5% on average) is modest in comparison to voters’ responses to corruption in the US and other settings, but the lower magnitude seems reasonable given the fact that most British MPs have few individual powers and British voters have no other opportunity to express a party preference at the national level.

The findings thus illustrate the fact that the degree to which electoral accountability can constrain individual politicians depends on political institutions including the electoral system, separation of powers, and legislative organization.

A better example of why recall won’t work would be hard to find and further demonstration that something far more radical is need to grap MPs by their goolies – The Harrogate Agenda.

Another Crook

As Richard North writes, “MacShane, europhile extraordinaire and Labour MP for Rotherham, is looking at the prospect of being barred from his day job as an MP, for twelve months” for fiddling his expenses in a manner that was “plainly intended to deceive”.

Not that you would know how serious the case was from the front page of the BBC website; coming underneath another attempt by the BBC to praise Obama by highlighting a positive statistic on the American economy:

“Labour MP suspended over expenses is the headline” – nothing to see here obviously. Even more nauseating is his statement:

Clearly I deeply regret that the way I chose to be reimbursed for costs related to my work in Europe and in combating anti-semitism, including being the Prime Minister’s personal envoy, has been judged so harshly.

Ah, being against fascism must mean by default that you’re a ‘good all round chap’ so a little bit of money on the side is acceptable as a consequence. A point he reiterates:

I remain committed to work for progressive values, for Britain playing a full part in Europe, and for combating anti-semitism even though I can no longer undertake this work as a Labour MP

Progressive values? Progressive politics? This is a phrase I detest…maybe because it’s personal. Apparently it’s meant as something that gets better but it also has another meaning. Mrs TBF has MS which is progressive – thus she will over time get worse – progressive is a negative term.

Perhaps on reflection the phrase ‘progressive politics’ is entirely appropriate.

Us And Them

The irrepressible Witterings from Witney has two cracking posts today: one that the Tory chief whip has resigned and has appeared to confirm in his letter that he swore at police despite previous denials that he didn’t and that with “Expensegate II bubbling away nicely” our ‘esteemed’ chancellor was caught in first class with a standard class ticket.

One wonders how long this contempt for us can go on…?

The Legg Report

There’s much excitement and outrage about the Legg Report today, and mostly rightly so. However I get the feeling that some MPs are being unfairly targeted to the detriment of actually cleaning up the system. For example compared to some, my MP – Ed Vaizey – has been rather boring (or to put it another way slightly more honest than most):

Mr Vaizey was paid £790 for a dining table in March 2007, which exceeded the guideline price of £660 by £130.
He was overpaid by £197.42 for mortgage interest in 2008-09.
He was also overpaid by £136.00 for council tax in 2008-09.
Total repayment recommended: £463.42
Total repayments received since 1 April 2009: £2,449.45
Balance recommended to be repaid: £0.00

Although good that he has paid it back, the intention and the sums involved hardly compares to others who have been milking the system so effectively that they can establish a property portfolio at the taxpayer’s expense.

Guido is of course loving this, however I think it slightly unfair to report in a blog titled ‘porkbusters’, that Ed Vaizey has:

appealed to Legg over £30.

The insinuation is clear and it makes me slightly uncomfortable because here are the facts from Ed Vaizey’s blog:

As the Sunday Telegraph reports, I have appealed my Legg findings. It’s much less of a big deal than it might seem. In May I repaid the cost of my furniture, plus my council tax, because I had inadvertantly claimed for an additional month. Legg found that I should have repaid my council tax, (£136) – I agree. He asked for a small sum towards the furniture (£130) – much less than I had voluntarily repaid. And he identified £197 as a sum I had overclaimed on my mortgage. When I went over the figures, I saw that I had overclaimed, but in my view by only £162. The only way to clarfiy the difference in these figures for the final report is to “appeal”, but as I have already voluntarily paid back a far larger amount, I will not be asked to make any additional payments. So I am not appealing as such, merely asking for the figures to be checked so that a final sum can be agreed. To sum up, I have been asked to repay £463, but I have actualy voluntarily repaid £2449.

Minor indiscretions are being lumped in with ‘everyone’s at it’ which has the net effect of ultimately negating the worse cases where some MPs should be in jail. The concentration, rather than a scatter gun approach, should be on those that knowingly exploited the system, like Buff-Hoon who ‘only’ has to pay £1,151.42 (£1298.03 less than Vaizey) despite being a serial property ‘flipper’.

I appreciate my view will be unpopular; I’m no Vaizey fan though and I’ll be unlikely to vote for him at the next election so I have no partisan loyalty to express, but I agree with Anne Widdecombe (an expenses saint):

Ms Widdecombe was among those who had contested a demand to repay some money. She says while she has agreed to pay back a small sum of £230, she has been cleared of any abuse of the system.

As part of his inquiry into MPs’ claims, Sir Thomas applied retrospective limits under certain categories. Ms Widdecombe said she had been told there was no evidence of abuse because there had been no limit on gardening expenditure at the time she made the claim.

The MP said: “Honour has been satisfied and I have sent a cheque off. However, I do think the Legg inquiry has been lazy, incompetent and unreasonable. Why put retrospective limits on some allowances but not on others? He has never answered that argument.”

She warned the Legg report – which has audited all expenses claims made by MPs between 2004 and 2008 – was unlikely to put an end to controversy over allowances and a better option would be to end the expenses and pay MPs more.

She added: “It [the Legg report] will draw a line under what has gone on up until now but what we have ended up with is the worst of all worlds. I can see problems developing in the first five minutes [of the new system]. They should have scrapped the allowances and raised salaries.”

Bashing MPs is a popular pastime, but given the ‘shrug of the shoulders’ attitude of British taxpayers towards the ultimate gravy train – where MEPs can become millionaires within 6 months – my view is that a sense of proportion is non-existent and genuine outrage at politician’s expenses only goes so far.