Saturday, 4 April 2009

Do we have the Politicians we deserve ?

The recent revelations about the expenses claimed by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has been used by many as a stick to beat politicans in general and MPs in particular.

One group, the Jury Team, has set itself up as a "new" political grouping and throws around words such as integrity like confetti and seems intent on de-politicising politics.

I can certainly understand people's frustrations with some politicans and the current method of claiming expenses is clearly no longer practical but there is a huge amount of throwing the baby out with the bathwater going on and some perspective is needed.

In my experience, MPs work incredibly hard. If they aren't at Westminster, they are dealing with a huge number of issues and attending meetings in their constituency. I think that oddly enough the standard of MP activity has improved markedly in the past thirty years. There was a time when MPs were remote individuals who were only seen or heard from at election times and, if you lived in a "safe" seat, not even then.

Now, most MPs are much more active and evident in the community and that must be a good thing. However, the current system makes the actual "power" of a backbench MP very limited, whether in Opposition or Government but don't think for a moment that a letter from a MP doesn't make a local Council jump because it does...

The Jury Team seems to think we can replace the current system with some Athenian ideal where independently-minded people of high virtue will discuss and debate the issues of the day in a rarified atmosphere of goodwill and good sense.

Life ain't like that.

Politics ain't like that either.

We need parties with platforms and programmes (and hopefully principles) to tell us in which direction the country will go otherwise we'd be voting blind. Parties mean members, leaders, organisation and followers. An active plural society of competing parties and programmes is an ideal - I do accept that all too often that doesn't happen.

We also need a system that allows anyone, irrespective of personal wealth and background, to represent their community. Politics can't be the preserve of the independently wealthy, it must be available to anyone and that means help for those who don't have the wherewithal to operate in a meaningful way. That means help with travel and possibly help with accommodation for those with constituencies far from London.

However, there is no doubt the current system has been systematically abused. It can't be right for MPs from outer London to claim a living allowance while those in Inner London can't. Some of the sums claimed by Outer London Conservative and Labour MPs have been grotesque (I'm delighted to say Liberal Democrat MPs don't claim for housing). I have no argument with MPs from distant areas having places to stay in London and being supported on that basis but it's those who abuse the system rather than the system itself that need to be challenged.

On the other hand, if we create a Parliament full of saints, who will represent the sinners ?

Perhaps there has to be room for both and we need to accept that.

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