Saturday, July 05, 2008

Two fingers to the electorate

As promised, my weekly column in today's Newcastle Journal focuses on Mr David Clelland's little local difficulty, the row over MPs expenses - and what it all tells us about trust.


Over the course of his political career, David Clelland has been a notable servant of the North-East, both as an MP for the past 23 years and as leader of Gateshead council before that.

But in spite of – or perhaps because of – his doughty work on behalf of the region, the Tyne Bridge MP has only twice hit the national headlines.

The first was ten years ago, when he left his wife for his then secretary Brenda Graham, now the second Mrs Clelland, although media interest in the “story” proved thankfully short-lived.

The second was this week, when it emerged that he had told a constituent, Gary Scott, where he could “stick” his vote at the next election after he sent Mr Clelland a letter of complaint about the government’s record.

Mr Clelland’s actions have engendered widely differing reactions. Some have cited his behaviour as evidence of the “arrogance” of the political class and the growing gulf between MPs and the public.

To those of this persuasion, MPs are “servants” rather than “masters” and should behave as such, no matter what the provocation.

Others have seen Mr Clelland’s dismissive response as an indication that Labour has given up on the next general election already.

As Mr Scott himself told The Journal: “Labour are struggling for supporters as it is but if they don’t want voters who dare to question policies, they are finished.”

But on the opposing side of the argument, there are those who have applauded Mr Clelland’s honesty in speaking from the heart rather than sending the standard stock reply: “Thank you for your letter, the contents of which have been noted.”

Surely, they argue, we want our MPs to be human beings, not machines? It’s a fair point.

Still others have hailed Mr Clelland a hero for striking a blow for MPs who long to be able to tell vexatious letter-writers where to get off.

Said one MP’s researcher: “They regularly write book-length tomes on everything from climate change to Big Brother and expect the MP to address each and every point - all of which takes time away from helping constituents in true need.”

For my part, I would in the natural scheme of things have a fair degree of sympathy for this point of view, and indeed for Mr Clelland personally.

By and large, he has been a good thing for the North-East – most notably in campaigning for both a fairer funding deal and a stronger political voice for the region over the course of many years.

One thing, though, makes me stop short of a more whole-hearted endorsement – the fact that, on Thursday night, he voted to keep the discredited system of MPs allowances.

This, to me, says rather more about Mr Clelland – and the other 171 MPs who voted alongside him – than a minor spat with a constituent.

For the benefit of those who missed it, MPs were presented with a report from a special committee recommending the end of the so-called “John Lewis List” which enables them to claim expenses for new kitchens and TVs.

The review committee also wanted to replace the so-called £24,000 allowance for the upkeep of second homes.

In the event, MPs voted by 171 to 143 to keep both, although many more abstained.

Overwhelmingly, it was Labour MPs who voted in favour of retaining the current system, even though Prime Minister Gordon Brown had indicated that he favoured reform.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that North-East MPs, who have to live away from their constituencies during the week, would naturally tend to support generous allowances for second homes.

Other regional parliamentarians besides Mr Clelland who voted to keep the current system included Nick Brown, Kevan Jones, Stephen Byers and Ronnie Campbell.

But significantly, it was by no means a universal view among the Northern Group of Labour MPs, with Sir Stuart Bell, Vera Baird, Helen Goodman and Chris Mullin all backing the proposed reform.

It is also worth noting that Sir Alan Beith, whose constituency is further away from London than any MP in England, let alone the North, also supported change.

What we have here, then, is not so much a regional divide as a clash of values – between MPs who think it is fine to charge the taxpayer for new tellies and those who would draw the line at that.

Perhaps at a deeper level, too, it is a clash of values between those who care what the public think of them, and those who are happy to tell the electorate to “stick it” – to coin a phrase.

In the context of the overriding need to rebuild public trust and confidence in the political system, Thursday’s vote was not just perverse, it was stupid.

Yes, MPs need a certain amount of taxpayers’ money to do their jobs, but for them to insist on their right to buy TVs and sofas on the public purse – particularly at this stage in the economic cycle – was just asking for trouble.

It was not, of course, backbench MPs who were primarily to blame for the loss of public trust in politicians that has occurred over the past decade and a half.

It started with the Tory sleaze of the mid-1990s and intensified as a result of New Labour’s spin and sleaze over the past 11 years under both Mr Brown and Tony Blair.

Yet here was a rare opportunity for backbench MPs to do something about it, to actually start to rebuild the frayed bond of trust between them and the people they purport to represent.

By spurning that opportunity, it is not just Mr Clelland who has given a metaphorical two fingers to the voters.

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Barnacle Bill said...

A pleasure to read this article Paul, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Don't you have anything to say about the tories appointing a total fruitcake as their deputy mayor. What next the Emperor Napoleon as deputy emperor. I think I will apply to be deputy mayor I am former general and a I am a doctor.

David Boothroyd said...

The 'John Lewis list' doesn't allow anything. It disallows claims on the Additional Costs Allowance where the item claimed for is over the list price. And MPs were as unaware of its existence as anyone else outside of the HC Fees Office until February.

There is no subject in politics so poorly reported as MP's pay, hours and allowances. The reporting is abysmal, and delving back into history shows that this is a long-lasting problem. The post-war Churchill government got into a terrible problem with the newspapers in 1954 over a proposed increase.