‘Fish rot from the head first’.
The stink arising from the outright corruption, outright thievery – to give it its proper name – from the ‘public purse’, by the overwhelming majority of ‘dis-honourable members’ of the House of Commons presents a nauseating spectacle. It also discredits not just parliament and its inhabitants but the capitalist system itself.
Sometimes an event acts as a catalyst to bring all the festering discontent to the surface. The revelations first aired in the Daily Telegraph have had such an effect. While the shadow of mass unemployment looms over working-class people, with poverty worse than at the time of Thatcher, MPs are revealed to have filled their boots with ludicrously exaggerated ‘expenses’. This has prompted some outraged ‘respectable’ journalists to call for the prosecution of some MPs.
Under Major, it was ‘cash for questions’, with Blair, ‘honours’ for business people. Now under Gordon Brown, everything is reduced to the ‘cash nexus’, as the nineteenth century writer Carlyle once said. MPs have claimed ‘cash for cleaners’, carpets, saunas – one even to be installed in an MP’s home – swimming pools, gardeners, barbecues, dog food, and cushions – silk ones, naturally, 17 in all – “to ease the repose of Keith Vaz”. Tory MP and former minister John Selwyn Gummer claimed for a mole catcher; ironic given the leaking of MPs’ expenses and the prosecution of moles in the civil service! One MP claimed for a Kitkat and a Scottish Labour MP claimed for a 5p carrier bag! As Andrew Rawnsley commented in the Observer: “Well, he probably needs somewhere to stuff all his receipts.”
A Liberal Democrat MP takes cash for cosmetics and one male Tory MP, unbelievably claimed for tampons! John Prescott – that New Labour working-class ‘hero’ – demanded on his expense account “three faux Tudor beams for his castle in Hull”. He also claimed for two broken lavatory seats, prompting wags to declare: “It was two jags, then two shags, now it’s two bogs Prescott.”
The sham of British ‘parliamentary democracy’ has been laid bare. Every major party is implicated in this real ‘criminal conspiracy’. Some parliamentary luminaries, such as a former deputy Speaker, have suggested that “parliament may have to be dissolved”. The depth of public disillusion is summed up by the august Observer commentator Rawnsley who used the language of the ‘street’ to signify the widespread disillusion: “The MP who claimed for horse manure? Well, why not when so many other parliamentarians simply don’t give a shit”!
With a few exceptions, these are apposite words for the majority of MPs. Those who already have shed-loads of cash, it seems, wanted more, like Barbara Follett – of the ‘wallet’ – and renegade Tory MP and now New Labour minister Shaun Woodward, who has a butler but also claimed his ‘expenses’. The MPs claim they needed to do this because of the ‘inadequacy’ of their parliamentary salary, which is… £64,000 a year!
What a contrast to the socialist and Marxist former MPs, Dave Nellist and the late Terry Fields and Pat Wall, who took just the wage of an average worker. But that was when the Labour Party at the bottom stood for working people.
Compare also the MPs to the lot of the poverty-stricken woman interviewed by the Guardian last week, trying to feed her family on a budget of £3 a head per day! Yet government minister James Purnell, while dipping his own snout into the trough, still intends to persecute and punish people like her on benefits through no fault of their own while MPs and bankers will probably get away scot free! Taken together with the scandal of bankers’ bonuses and the complete failure to deliver the basics of a job, a home and a decent income for millions of workers in this country, the whole system of parliament and capitalism is nakedly exposed.
The ‘institutions’ of this system – including parliament, as these revelations confirm – are discredited. If a mass workers’ party existed in Britain today, the revulsion felt over these and other measures which benefit the rich and punish the poor could be used to build a mass wave of opposition that could pose a real alternative. The ‘No2EU’ campaign for the European elections is the beginning of such an alternative.
Socialists and the labour movement fought for and support the democratic conquests which exist. We and our forebears made the greatest sacrifices for the right to vote, a free press, trade union rights and representative systems at national and local level which could reflect the ‘will of the people’. But the present ‘parliament’ is revealed to be a million miles away from this ideal.
The press and media are controlled by a handful of rich moguls with the voice of ordinary people drowned out by a cacophony in favour of the ‘market’, which has utterly failed the majority of the population. Three almost identical parties – New Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats – are mired in corruption, as these revelations have shown, and offer absolutely no way forward.
Parliament itself, with five-yearly elections and MPs on bloated salaries and expenses, is completely unrepresentative. Two centuries ago, the French philosopher Rousseau criticised the British parliamentary system: “If the English people think they are free, they deceive themselves; they are only free during the election of members of Parliament; as soon as these are elected, the people are slaves, they no longer count for anything… The deputies of the people thus are not nor can they be the people’s representatives.” An accurate picture of British democracy today!
The pioneers for democracy in Britain, the Chartists – the first independent workers’ party in history – demanded annual parliaments. When the first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, entered the House of Commons he was not paid and nor were any MPs. However, unlike Hardie, MPs then were mostly Tories and Liberals who had ‘independent incomes’. The very minimum that should now be demanded is that no MP should have ‘outside interests’, directorships or advisory positions with private companies, ie big business.
As Mark Lawson, the TV and art critic, has pointed out, why not go further and propose that no MP should receive more than the average wage? This would certainly thin out the ranks of MPs and would-be MPs from the ‘upper tiers’ of society but would make way for those more in touch with the feelings of the majority, ie working class people.
But in time it will be necessary to go further than this. The election of any representative for five years to an institution like the present parliament is inherently undemocratic. These MPs are not accountable to the constituents who elect them, other than once every five years, and even then their record is never properly put under scrutiny.
Socialists support all democratic rights, including voting for parliament. We would fight along with working people against any attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government as happened in Chile in 1973 and Spain in the 1930s. But a more representative, accountable system than we have at present is necessary. The House of Lords should be abolished; there should be a single assembly which combines the legislative and executive powers hitherto divided in Britain. Members should be elected for a maximum of two years with votes at age 16. MPs could then be elected on the basis of democratic local assemblies with the right of recall by their constituents, and should receive the salary of a skilled worker.
Democracy like this would lead to greater participation by the mass of the population. A change in the electoral system to proportional representation would also be an improvement.
Compared to the present undemocratic set-up – which rests power in the hands of an elite – the above changes would represent a big step forward. In the absence of a mass workers’ party in Britain today, such demands and slogans are probably in advance of what most, even working-class, people would support at the present time. But the nausea arising from the revelations of thievery by parliament and parliamentarians is preparing the ground for the adoption of such bold demands in the future.
In the meantime, the salary of MPs must be cut to the level of the average wage. Where expenses are needed, they should be strictly necessary ones only – similar to what some building workers and others are paid as they travel the country in pursuit of their work. Moreover, rather than an ‘outside body’ checking and auditing expenses, why not scrutiny committees made up of workers, the unemployed, those forced onto benefits and small shopkeepers and business people threatened by the present recession?
The MPs’ expenses scandal will lead to recognition that a system based on production for profits for the few – the millionaires and billionaires – rather than for social needs of the majority, the millions, inevitably produces the kind of rottenness and corruption that we are witnessing. We defend all democratic rights – which must also include today the abolition of the vicious anti-trade union laws inherited from Thatcher. But at the same time we aim for an extension of democracy, for a democratic socialist state, not the truncated ‘elected dictatorship’ which parliament is at present.