Now we have decided that most, if not all, MPs are money grubbing fraudsters who only ever got into politics so they could buy themselves soft furnishings from John Lewis subsidised from the public purse it is time for some proper upstanding citizens to put themselves forward. It may be that, as Norman Tebbit advocates, we will abandon the constraints of a system dominated by major parties in favour of the much more interesting niche systems of Israel, Italy or India. But in case Parties do persist, I thought it might be helpful to explain what, in my experience, is involved in becoming a Labour MP.
• You will be expected to have been a Party member for several years, probably at least a decade
• To demonstrate your commitment and to raise your profile among other activists you will throughout those years canvass door to door most weekends and several nights a week during election campaigns (including council by-elections)
• Throughout the decade-plus of activism, Committee and other meetings will on average take up two or three nights a week
• You will be expected to take on a range of elected offices in the local Party ranging from Constituency secretary to branch Treasurer. You will almost certainly need to give up a room in your house for the piles of canvass returns, committee minutes, leaflets that will quickly accrete.
(By the way, you don’t get paid for any of this.)
• You will have to be nice to everyone and find a way of keeping in with as many different Party factions as you can, after all you will need the votes to get selected
• You will have to be very careful with your private life as this will come under greater scrutiny as you climb the greasy pole
• You may have stood for the local authority or even got elected, which will take up your other evenings (and don’t hope to get rich on councillors’ allowances)
• You will even now find it very hard to find a winnable seat. In fact, as you go from selection to selection you will come across people who have been trying unsuccessfully for years, many of whom will have given up months or even years to stand in totally unwinnable seats
• However hard you work don’t forget that if your Party leadership is unpopular you may not win or you may be thrown out at the next election (and in case your real ambition is to become a Cabinet minister it’s as well to know that even f you do get elected the chance of this happening is about 1 in 20).
But now, after the decade plus of activity, after the thousands of hours of unpaid activism, now at last you reach your goal – access to the MPs’ allowances system. Now it’s is all worth while - enjoy.
(Of course, some MPs - but not that many - get a fast track into Parliament but these tend to be the kind of people who take a pay cut when they get elected.)
From what I can tell, out of 646 MPs, up to 100 have been claiming every penny they could, about 50 have been claiming for things which might have been within the letter of the rules but were clearly inappropriate, and maybe a handful will find themselves justifiably accused of deliberately abusing the rules or making fraudulent claims.
It s a terrible picture and who knows what damage it will do. I don’t defend MPs or point out how hard it can be to become one because I am trying to excuse the bad cases; I have long been a vocal critic of our political culture. But the argument now being peddled by almost the whole media that our entire political system is racked by corruption, and that MPs are by definition morally bankrupt, must be countered. The allowances system developed because, even thirty years ago, under Margaret Thatcher, there was a gap between what independent experts thought MPs should be paid and what the public was willing to tolerate. The allowances system was the ‘clumsy solution’ to this dilemma and a generation of Governments, Leaders of the House and Speakers failed to act as that system grew out of control.
Of course we need a debate about the kind of politics and politicians we need and want, but is throwing a bucket of manure over the whole of Parliament really the best way to start?