Monday, May 18, 2009


Parliament In Crisis: A Good Day For Nick, But A Lot More Questions To Come

Nick Clegg had an impressive day yesterday, breaking a 314-year Parliamentary convention to call for the worst Commons Speaker in living memory to go. He was very effective on re-establishing our anti-establishment credentials, but there are still big questions that need asking, and answering, and quickly – not just the Liberal Democrats in general, not just the House of Commons, but specifically the Leader, our Parliamentary Parties, and the Federal Executive this afternoon. Replacing the dodgy rules so far, what should better rules look like? And what’s to be done about people who’ve already taken the loot (and the piss)?

First of all, congratulations to Nick. Yesterday, he really found his voice. I thought he had a ropey week last week; there’s no doubt that the Liberal Democrats were the least dodgy of MPs, but we neither built on nor capitalised on that for most of the time. Several of our MPs were completely open with their expenses, having published them all months ago – why didn’t Nick order all of them to do it, especially as they were coming out anyway? Were the Commons and Lords Parliamentary Parties simply paralysed with fear, or hoping the Torygraph wouldn’t find something? Why didn’t we find the right medium between ‘we’re sorry some MPs took too much’ and ‘come on, a feather duster’s not in the same league as a moat and a flipping great fraud, is it’, when even Jeremy-A-Million-Of-Your-Taxpayers’-Pounds-Paxman could say it? Why did anyone let Ming Campbell go on Question Time and get himself in a complete Eric Pickle? And why didn’t Nick announce in advance of the Torygraph’s Lib Dem revelations that anyone who’d made off with a hefty amount of money they shouldn’t have would be for the high jump – again, we all knew something was coming, yet we’ve been stuck in the embarrassing position of sounding less strict than David Cameron, who seized the initiative paradoxically because moats and mansions and tennis courts were far more corrupt than anything of any Lib Dem MP, and so he could be seen to take harsh action.

Calling for the Speaker to go, though, was exactly the right thing to do, and brave – after all, the Speaker has near-unlimited power to fuck a party over in the Commons. And, despite my utter contempt for Mr Martin, who combines all the worst traits of an exclusive old gentleman’s club chairman and an old restricted-practices trade union shop steward, and who is both rubbish and partisan, Nick was entirely right in sticking to the issue rather than having a go at the Speaker personally. And if you listened to the Today Programme this morning, he was boosted enormously by the grumpy Scottish Labour MP who made wild personal attacks on Nick and everyone who had criticised the Speaker, which probably sounded like a defence to him but sounded to me and I imagine the vast majority of listeners like a corrupt old numpty incriminating the Speaker further with every word.

If they do get rid of him, by the way, who should be the new Speaker? Tradition means Buggins’ Turn, and some old grandee. That is exactly the wrong way to go. Instead, the Liberal Democrats should refuse to support anyone who’s been an MP for more than two or three Parliaments, on the grounds that they’ve gone hopelessly native. Not Ming (fat chance now), not Alan Beith (bless him), not Nick Harvey (have you crawled into a ball of embarrassment when he’s popped up to defend the status quo, too?). It should be someone with a proven track record of calling for and voting for reform before it was fashionable, if Parliament’s to crawl back to any sort of credibility at all. Richard suggested Norman Baker to me this morning (update: and Millennium makes the case for him, as well as having much to say about the whole scandal); I have to admit, he’d be great at it, but I don’t want us to lose one of our best attacking MPs. I don’t know who I’d trust, but – breaking my own rule here within a paragraph – I’ve seen Frank Field’s name being floated about, and though personally I don’t want to see his face on TV even more than it is now, he does seem to have credibility with a lot of the media, and that might help rebuild some trust in democracy, which is the most important thing right now. Plus, it’d stop him bashing immigrants and poor people, so that’d be a bonus.

I wish that a member of the House of Lords I’d have trusted with my life as well as my money, my old friend Conrad Russell, were still alive. With the prospect of the first peers to be excluded from the Lords since the time of Cromwell and the first Speaker to be dragged from his chair since 1690, the brilliant 17th Century historian would be having a field day. And though Conrad and I might have inclined on different ways over the British Civil Wars, we’d agree – or, rather, he made the case and convinced me of it – that the Liberal Democrats’ ‘family history’ begins in the 17th Century, with the desire to limit and oversee arbitrary power. That’s what this is all about – people had the power to do something, so a lot of them did it.

No, They’re Not All On the Take

Of course it’s not every MP, nor every peer, still less every politician. Most of the time I regret that my long-term ill health means I can’t stand for Parliament any more. The last couple of weeks? Well, they’ve been enormously depressing, but they’ve not made me miss it. People long said that all politicians are corrupt – and most those of us in politics have long been frustrated, because it's not true of us and we have to fight against that perception as we pour all our time and effort and, yes, money into trying to get things done. After the last few weeks, everyone just thinks they’ve been proved right all along. It’ll be an absolute bloody nightmare for the thousands of honest, hard-working political activists knocking on doors. I remember all the people on the doorstep who assumed that every politician was wallowing in their riches, and that the second-most aggravating question – after ‘But aren’t you going to come third?’ – was all the people who asked how much I got paid as a Parliamentary candidate. No, not a penny of your money, and not a penny of the party’s, either – if you’re a candidate, all the money goes down an enormous funnel the other way, you stupid prat, and how about getting off your arse and doing something rather than just complaining? As I can say now, given that of course I’m no longer standing.

While I can intellectually understand how much of this happened – that allowances grew far beyond what they should have because wages were held down, in a clever dodge by Mrs Thatcher to massage the figures on MPs’ pay in exactly the same way she brought relatively fit people onto incapacity benefit at a slightly higher rate than if they were classed as unemployed, as a silent deal to keep the unemployment figures down – emotionally I can also say, to every MP that has been on the take, I hate you, because you’ve confirmed every prejudice, brought all the rest of us into disrepute and made the task of changing absolutely anything in this country that much harder.

But though not every MP’s been on the make, the ones who have fit precisely into what Liberal Democrats have been saying for years. Not just that ours are more honest than the others by a mile – though that’s now been proven even if you take some of the Torygraph’s desperate partisan smear jobs to make it look like we’re just as bad at face value – but that this has been boosted by the way the whole corrupt, inward-looking political system works. Liberal Democrats have been arguing for decades for better freedom of information; well, look how the whole system explodes when we get it, even if the Torygraph ironically won’t be free with the information about how they got it, because they were paying crooks. I can't criticise them too much, though, because without their dodgy pay-offs, we’d never have found out about the most crooked of all the widespread practices – “flipping” second home allowances to pay out for house after house in turn.

Liberal Democrats have been arguing for decades that the electoral system isn’t just unfair to people’s party preferences, but doles out safe seats that mean worse MPs – well, look, Mark has analysed the minority of crooked MPs and found that, who’d have thought it, they’re very much more likely to be crooked if they have ultra-safe seats and regard themselves as ‘untouchable’. Costigan reminds us that, with elections via the single transferable vote, we don’t support top-down proportional representation but giving people the choice to sling out an individual MP but still keep their party. You want to know how to make STV ‘sexy’? Tell people to imagine if a General Election were held like that tomorrow! And, tying in with all that (and, hurrah, a party leader agreeing with some of what I said in my first conference speech, half my life ago), Nick yesterday was also calling for MPs that are guilty of misconduct to be subject to recall by their constituents – so, if they don’t like the one they’ve got, they can take it back and get a new one.

That’s all well and good, but it isn’t all. There are still awkward questions to be asked, and some of them are very hard even for Liberal Democrats.

What Awkward Questions Do We Still Need To Ask?

Everyone agrees that the rules so far have been dodgy and need changing. Fine. But the single line most likely to make an ordinary, mild-mannered citizen march on one of their MPs’ homes with a blazing torch is ‘It was within the rules’. No, no, no. Fuck, and indeed, off.

First point: any Liberal Democrat Parliamentarian should be banned by the Chief Whip from using those words.

Second, as any fule kno, it doesn’t matter a toss what the rules were if what you were doing was wrong.

Third, that means we have to consider what to do about what Parliamentarians have done under the existing rules, whether they broke them or kept them, as well as work out what the new rules should be.

I don’t have all the answers, but if there’s one thing Liberalism’s about even more than binding arbitrary power, it’s asking questions. Here are a few we should ask…

So far, a substantial minority of MPs seem to have asked the not-too-difficult questions:
And, now they’ve been found out, too many of their ‘It was within the rules’ defenders are trying to restrict any comeback to the very lame:
On the other hand, the public mood is to ask just one question:
With the inbuilt answer, Yes / Yes, do not delete either option.

So here are a few ideas to focus our minds on what expenses should be permissible in the future, and a yardstick for judging what people have done in the past, finding a happy medium between:

Perhaps the central question is:
  • Is this taking the piss?

A few quick thoughts of answers would be that MPs from outside of easy travel of Westminster – and thank fuck every Liberal Democrat MP in London refused to take the second homes allowance, while the Tories and Labour kept their snouts down – should certainly have somewhere to stay but, as Nick Clegg has been saying, they shouldn’t be allowed to make any profit from it. Where there is any, that should all go to the taxpayer. Flats or houses, though; it’d be daft to say it has to be hotels only while the House is sitting. Not only are hotels a lot more expensive, but imagine doing your job while moving house a dozen times a year…

What I don’t think the party’s been saying, but which we should have been since the days of Derek Conway, is that no MPs should be allowed to have a member of their family working for them. Sorry, but no. Yes, most of the time it’s probably better value for money, and it’s good for keeping relationships together, but people just won’t stand for it any more. It looks like it stinks even when it’s a good deal, so it has to stop. But, on the good side, at least all this orgy of castigation over MPs’ allowances in the last couple of weeks has had so much to feed on that they’ve not been carrying on that crazy media idea of counting all the MPs’ employees and offices as ‘perks’ rather than, er, people doing jobs and a place to do them.

And, of course, all our Parliamentary candidates should have to sign up to our own, very strict, rules, before they can stand under the Liberal Democrat label.

Now for the really hard part.

Without getting into all the detail on named individuals – because I don’t know it all, and I don’t trust everything I read in the papers – the people who are going to have to decide about people who have been named in the papers have to do something. It isn’t an option to say ‘They were within the rules’.

So what questions do Nick Clegg, do the Commons and Lords Parliamentary Parties, and do the Federal Executive this afternoon have to ask?
I’ve not read the full Bones Commission on reforming the Liberal Democrats’ internal structures. Sorry and all that, but I’m a policy wonk, not a process wonk. Still, people who have are saying it provides for setting up some sort of audit body that can investigate people’s actions, so we should get those going pronto.

For people who have taken the piss, we need to ask further questions:
And then, what sanctions are appropriate?
Basically, we’re a party of the Rule of Law. It’s pretty much our founding ideal – it’s how we control abuses of power. So we should set out those questions above before we get onto the individuals.

I frequently argue on this blog that laws are there to protect nasty people as well as nice ones. That rights aren’t rights if they only apply to people you like.

Well, the converse of that is also true. Laws have to apply to nice people as well as nasty ones.

There are some of the Parliamentarians who’ve been attacked who I know and like; there are some I know less or don’t like all that much. In a semi-judicial enquiry, that can’t matter. The purpose of all this is not to clear their names, but to clear ours – to make sure that the Liberal Democrats as a whole will deal with dodgy actions if they’re found to have taken place. I’ve had friends who’ve gone into court, and I’ve stood by them and hoped they weren’t going to be guilty. But I wouldn’t have smuggled them out of the country or perjured myself just because they were my friends.

Some of them might be easy. When I heard from the Torygraph, for example, that Andrew George was said to have bought a flat for his daughter with taxpayers’ money, I had one simple question: ‘Were you living there to do your job as an MP, or was it just a student flat?’ And the very next day, yes, it was where he lived to attend the House of Commons, it was a small rather than luxury flat, and he’d even paid for a third of it himself to make sure it was above board. So who the hell should care about who lives there, unless they were claiming any money too?

Some of the accusations of spending money wildly are more difficult, and it’d be easier for the Leader or the Federal Executive to close their eyes and hope it all goes away. They can’t, and it won’t. The biggest two, obviously, are Ming Campbell and the one who most people outside the Liberal Democrats won’t have heard of, Chris Rennard. I have a huge amount of respect for Ming, but one of his drawbacks is that he’s been in the House of Commons a long time and has taken on too much of its culture – he was a disaster on Question Time last week, not because he was corrupt, but because he simply didn’t understand what the fuss was about. And Chris Rennard, a Liberal Democrat peer, for a long time the party’s elections guru and now its Chief Executive, is the person named in all of this that I’ve known for longest and admire the most. I have both a tribal and a personal loyalty to him and I really, really hope that he has a good explanation for what the News of the Screws – a paper I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw Chris and a vanful of Focus leaflets – said about his second home. I hope he comes out of it fine, and people who’ve always had it in for him who’re saying he should be sacked on the spot really aren’t helping. But for anyone – anyone – who really has spent a large amount of taxpayers’ money that they shouldn’t? The MPs got rid of Charles Kennedy, and while over the years I’ve gradually accepted that that was the right decision, I think the public’s far more tolerant of alcoholism than shopping sprees with the public’s credit cards, still less fraud.

Any investigation can’t be a witch-hunt – but it all has to happen if we’re to live up to our ideals of openness, honesty and controlling arbitrary power.

And, above all, it has to be fast. Because people’s patience is at an end.

Apologies for this article being less discursive than usual, and for a lack of links (other than the two I particularly remembered). Two reasons: for the last couple of weeks I’ve been rather ill, having carried back lurgies generously offered to me by my Mum and younger niece on a family visit, and right now my head’s feeling particularly full of cheese; and, also for the last couple of weeks, my Internet connection’s been a bit poorly, too. My computer’s managed to get online just twice in the last week, and while Richard’s gets through more often, typing on it knackers my back and hand – so going between computers with a data stick isn’t the best way to refer to sources.

Now more Lemsip, and back to bed.

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Two wonderful thoughts in here.

1) Conrad commenting on the current affair which would be delivered in an elegant erudite fashion, disguising the fact that it was actually a kicking with a large pair of DMs

2) "Most of the time I regret that my long-term ill health means I can’t stand for Parliament any more"
Not just you who regrets that.....
Balanced, forthright and discursive. I agree with everything you've said, and hope someone in the upper Party echelons has read it, too. :)
Awwhh, thank you both!

And, yes, I'd have loved to hear Conrad slicing the malfeasants to ribbons with reference to the Seventeenth Century...

Now slightly more conscious, and the Speaker's spoken. But not said anything. Only in the House of Commons could he be the one not to hear his own no confidence motion ;-/

I hope some members of the FE have read this, too. Two obvious things I forgot to say; obviously expenses should need a receipt for every penny, like every other organisation requires, and once we've sorted out our own rules, we should say we'll vote for all of the forthcoming Christopher Kelly recommendations as a minimum, but if any of them are cop-outs that don't go as far as our own suggestions, we'll keep tabling stricter changes on top once the Kelly package as a whole has gone through.

I say that because I think saying 'we'll just do whatever this grand old member of the establishment comes up with' is not necessarily the way to establish absolute openness and probity. Given that it's such persons who've been blocking Lib Dems voting to a person for freedom of information and expenses reform for years.
Gosh, that takes me back!

Mention of Conrad brought a tear to my eye. I wonder what he'd be saying about the Coalition.
Conrad’s a terrible loss… Especially in Government. I’d like to think he’d be being a brilliant minister, but he’d probably be holding them to account even more severely from the backbenches (and in case readers happen across this piece and wonder what drew Caron to it today, it was this article).
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