The Thick of It


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Expenses scandal: the casualties

Iain Dale wrote yesterday that the media has decided it wants and needs a scalp (or several) from the expenses scandal. Today we have Labour's Margaret Moran - which I thought was inevitable - and the Tories' Julie Kirkbride, who has had her name sullied largely by her husband. Dale also points out that the lady leading the Bromsgrove protests against her is a member of hard left Respect.

Any media led campaign like this almost always needs its victims. I suspect there will be a few more. From a public relations point of view, both Labour and the Tories need this to stop. It would be better if the internal disciplinary procedures were quick and decisive instead of relying on individual MPs' ability to withstand or crack under media pressure.

It is symptomatic of the whole expenses affair - one that broke through a media leak - that action and regret has only taken place when nudged by the media. The political moral compass still seems to be lost.

I meet popular music act The Saturdays

On Tuesday I was a privledged guest of Veet to see a secret show by The Saturdays. They are embarking on a UK tour next week.

Friday, May 22, 2009

John Smith

Recently linked to Labour blog Red Threads tagged me in a post about John Smith to mark the fifteenth anniversary of his death. The idea is to get as many Labour people talking about our late (great) leader.

Where were you when you heard John Smith had died?
I had just got home from secondary school, I was 14. My mum was standing by the radio in our kitchen and told me the second I walked in the door. When she told me I felt like the world I had hoped for had just been snatched away from me. I felt a slightly desperate. I can remember staying up late with my dad in 1992 to watch the election results come in and getting deeply upset. John Smith was Labour's last hope and he was no longer.

How did you view John Smith when he was leader and how do you view him now?
In the run up to the 1992 election it had seemed that the media and much of the public was deeply suspicious of Neil Kinnock. John Smith was painted as the sensible alternative who would have led Labour to victory - despite his disastrous shadow budget and the subsequent Tory Labour's tax bombshell adverts.

At the time I viewed him as the only man left who could lead Labour back into government. Now I view him as a man who probably would have led Labour to victory in 1997, but who would have led a different party to that which Tony Blair took into government. Reform of the party would have been less aggressive than under Blair, Smith's victory was OMOV, I'm not sure he'd have wanted to take on more. As a result it could be argued that Labour might not have been able to hold onto power for as long as it has. Or it could be argued that he might have kept Labour old and that the party would have remained stronger. I'm not necessarily convinced of the latter. Key strands of his policy as Shadow Chancellor in 1992 were a national minimum wage - something enacted by Blair's government.

Do you think he would have made a good Prime Minister?
Smith would have made a good PM. I don't know if he'd have been able to decimate the Tories in parliament and in elections as the centrist Blair managed. They were so tired by 1997 though, so who knows?

What do you think is his lasting legacy?
Smith carried on necessary reform of the Labour Party and his commitment to social justice was undoubted. It is important that we continue to remember him in the Labour movement. It is so easy to forget that Blair's dominance of British politics and Labour Party came about by accident.

London's Euro election candidates

If anyone actually cares while Parliament continues to implode over the expenses crisis, UK Polling Report has a useful breakdown of all the candidates, by party, for June 4's Euro elections.

Former England footballer Stuart Pearce's brother, Dennis, is standing for the BNP. I've always had a lot of respect for Stuart and was shocked when I heard the news. At least the People have documented "Psycho's" "fury" at the news.

I have been campaigning recently in Islington with Labour's Claude Moraes. He has been zig-zagging his way across London meeting as many voters as he can. Like me, he is worried that the cynicism in politics and politicians brought about by the MP expense scandal should lead to gains for a party of the far right.

Not all politicians need to come way tained by the current crisis, not least Islington's MPs Emily Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn who have never claimed for second homes.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

An MP should be an MP and nothing else

I've always felt that an MP should be and MP first and last. Representing your constituents is paid as a full time job and should be treated as such. MPs, mostly Tories, have often had outside paid employment, which is wrong. Kenneth Clarke and William Hague are two key examples.

Working for a tobacco firm as Clarke does, or earning around £1m in additional income as Hague does, opens up MPs to several weaknesses. The first is that they are not devoting their time to representing their constituents fully, or to their (shadow) ministerial duties. Further, it opens them up to accusations of being influenced by outside interests. Much of the additional income from these outside consultancies will come from firms seeking influence. Why else would they pay politicians? Therefore, if a company pays an MP or minister, they are seeking to influence them.

A benefit of the MPs' expense scandal is that we might finally get to the stage where by seeking probity, politicians divest themselves of these outside interests. Voters are entitled to ask their MPs what they are doing to represent them if they are being paid to do something else when they are also being paid by the taxpayer to represent their constituents.

Hague has finally hinted that he may give up his outside interests. It is absolutely right that he should do so and others should follow. For the public to have any confidence in our politicians we need MPs who are MPs and purely that. State funding of political parties will mean accusations of cash for influence will die too. The sooner this happens the better.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

MPs' expenses: payback

The row over MPs' expenses has caused carnage in Westminster, directly implicating all three main party leaders and a host of others. Politicians are queuing up to apologise for making extravagant claims and to state how "strongly" they feel that the system is wrong. How few have actually acted to show that they understand the public anger is incredibly disappointing. Care Minister Phil Hope showed he gets this, while Ann Widdecomb showed a lack of understanding in criticising David Cameron's crackdown.

Widdecomb's is right to point out that we don't want to end with a parliamentary system that only allows the rich to become MPs. Criticising any clampdown while the public backlash against the current expense system is misguided and will win few plaudits.

It is right that there should be an independent investigation into the MP expense system. Public money should be treated with respect and the simplest way to resolve this row is to simply pay MPs more and expect them to cover their expenses from their salaries, just like the rest of us. MPs' pay should also be assessed independently. The days of MPs voting on their own pay rises has gone. MPs have shown that they can't manage their own expenses so we can't expect them to manage their pay either.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

MPs' expenses

There has clearly been fault from all parties with MPs making the most of a generous expense allowance. I'm pleased that The Daily Telegraph has turned the tables on the Tories, campaigning for Labour at the weekend wasn't easy when at that point, all the public knew about were Labour claims.

A common mitigation from MPs in the spotlight has been that they kept within the rules, but that these rules need changing. Again, there is agreement from almost all involved that the rules need changing. It has taken a national newspaper to leak the details of expenses to trigger the desire for change. Proposals to change the expense system recently have either been rejected by Parliament or have failed to be agreed by the main party leaders.

If Cameron is to discipline his MPs that have claimed for swimming pools or homes they already owned outright; or Brown to (unlikely) discipline MPs for avoiding tax, someone has to decide where the line between acceptable claims and unacceptable should be drawn.

Most MPs will get away with it. They made claims, if not in "good faith", then within the rules. Some claims might have been making the most of the system but claiming for furnishings and decorations of new homes will most likely have to be left alone. Those who have switched homes to create an additional allowance, especially properties that have nothing to do with parliamentary duties (like Luton MP Margaret Moran's Southampton home) should face censure. Those who have claimed for swimming pools, tennis courts and chandeliers should face censure. These claims are unreasonable under any system.

The Daily Telegraph's campaign has done much to breed cynicism in politics and politicians in general. Clearly the blame lies with the politicians for making unreasonable claims, though the effect has been wholeheartedly negative.

The only means to redress this is to set out a new system that pays MPs fairly for having to live in two places. This should also limit the outside interests of MPs. Being an MP should be their only job. At the same time state funding for political parties should be introduced to rid the British political system of all opportunities for abuse of power and and accusationis affair should lead to root and branch reform of the whole UK poli

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Where is Brown's team?

I am continually astonished about the lack of cabinet names appearing in the media to talk up the government. I mentioned it on Five Live last week, about a year after I'd first mentioned it there. Jonathan Freedland makes this point today, that Brown has no praetorian guard to defend his every move. This is either because Brown won't let them or because they are unwilling.

Every leader needs a strong team for support and to take some of the flak when things don't go well. Brown needs to do that urgently. He needed to do it some time ago, it isn't too late to avoid meltdown. Using the cabinet more might actually allow Brown himself to start presenting ideas to the country about his plans for the next five years, were he to win the election. Without doing so his plans will be lost and the election with it.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Is there anything Brown can do to save himself now?

David Blunkett's assertion today that Labour "has lost its political antennae" marks a significant juncture in the life of Gordon Brown's government. Even Peter Mandelson commented that "it never rains but it pours." Blunkett suggested that at present Labour is heading for the worst case scenario, a comprehensive defeat. I hope, like Blunkett, that we can plan for the best case and fight all the way to the election.

This has been a woeful week for Brown's government. In losing in the Commons over the right to let Gurkhas live in the UK and having to retreat over MP expenses, the government has shown that it is has lost the strength to stand by its convictions and also has lost touch with public opinion.

It is vital to the success of any leader that they pick their fights and battles wisely. Pick fights they can win and fights that are crucial. This week it would have been sensible to back public opinion over the Gurkhas and to seek a consensus over MP expenses.

I spoke on Victoria Derbyshire's Five Live discussion this morning with Michael White, Bob Roberts and Lance Price about this. I said that Brown needs to use his team more effectively. He takes too much on himself. It is rare to see other cabinet ministers given high profile media coverage (outside of their strict policy remits). Whatever good Brown might do, he has a poor reputation. He has handled the economic crisis well but his poll ratings remain the same.

I'd like to see others given a higher profile. Alan Johnson, James Purnell and Jack Straw have all been very quiet.

Brown has much to offer, shown by his handling of the banking crisis and the G20. Yet any good work by the government is never associated with him and has no effect on opinion polls. The handling of MP expensive is symptomatic of a government machine that is unable to communicate a good idea effectively. Much has been made of the unreasonable claims made by MPs and of Brown appearing on YouTube to announce his plans for reforming the system. This has meant there has been no mention of the fact that it was Labour's policy to open up MP expenses to public scrutiny in the first place.

I'm a strong supporter of Labour in government. The country and public services are in better shape than they would have been if the Tories had been in power - I firmly believe that we'd be in an even bigger financial mess had they been. I had to agree with White though that I don't see any way back for Brown and Labour at the next election. I agreed with Price, that the next 12 months shouldn't be abandoned. We have a year to show that we have a positive agenda and that if Labour does lose, for it not to be catastrophic.

Many of us have been waiting a long time for Brown to take the initiative. I'm preparing for the worst case scenario and hoping for the best.