Monday, August 10, 2009

Parliamentary reform - buying into the New Labour philosophy

One of the great ironies of 'Expensegate' is that, whilst framed in the context of cleaning up our politics, what we seem likely to end up with is a triumph of New Labour philosophy and strategy.

As liberals, we talk about reducing regulation, or using the legislation and powers that are already well-established, of giving people control over their own lives. But what do we apparently demand? Layer upon layer of regulation and monitoring, on the basis that politicians - all of them - can't be trusted. So we punish all of them for the sins of a few, and the criminalisation of society takes another step forward.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that all is rosy in the governmental garden, far from it. Setting aside those who have admitted to making false claims, most of the other 'exposed' MPs were perfectly honest about what they were claiming, and those claims were approved. You could legitimately argue that some of the claims were greedy, but I suspect that most of us, in a similar position would have been tempted, and a number would have succumbed. Human nature kicks in under such circumstances. And guess what, MPs are human too.

The public have been encouraged to believe that politicians are self-serving, greedy individuals, remote from those they serve. They are encouraged to believe that they are overpaid fatcats, whose pampered lives bear no semblance to those of their constituents. And yet, did we believe that ten years ago, or even five? Do we, as a society, even comprehend what Parliamentarians do?

The best part of £70,000 per year is, for a standard 36-40 hour week, quite a lot by the standards of the average full-time worker. On the other hand, for a seventy hour week, it's not that great. And if you've got a modest majority, that might well be the hours you put in. The Commons may sit until 10, 11 or beyond midnight, and whilst an MP may not be operating machinery or serving a customer, their job is to be there, holding the government of the day to account, taking part in devates, casting votes and representing those that sent them to Westminster in the first place.

And it's not just a Monday to Friday job. Constituency surgeries at the weekend, meeting voters at village fetes, a bit of canvassing perhaps, keeping up with e-mail, reading all of those letters, briefing documents and what have you. If you're doing the job properly, you might not get much time to yourself.

The reward, especially for those who genuinely wish to serve their community, and who have done nothing wrong, is to be attacked as though they were guilty of fraud, lazy and ineffectual. No wonder so many have decided that they don't want the job any more. And, irony of irony, those who remain are likely to be the tougher, more cynical ones, the ones less likely to empathise with their constituents. How badly must you want to serve your community to be willing to put up with the poison dripped daily into our political system? Most people will turn round and say, "Actually, I don't think so.".

There is a belief that there is no shortage of people who want to wield power on behalf of the masses, and I often hear that argument. Yet I know very few people who actually seek it. Members of political parties, a group who would be more likely to volunteer one might think, don't exactly rush to offer themselves as candidates, even at local government level, especially if they might win. I've not yet experienced the Local Party which hasn't had to twist arms to run a full slate.

The recent invitation from the Conservative Party for new potential Parliamentary candidates has, according to Conservative Central Office, attracted 4,000 applications. Once the mad, the bad and the sad have been filtered out, how many of them will want to do the work involved in getting elected? Are they willing to have their private lives, and those of their loved ones, in the spotlight? In some cases, are they willing to give up their career in order to hold a marginal seat until the next revolution of the political cycle? Are they happy to be away from their families, their loved ones, their friends for five days a week, possibly more? And are those families and loved ones willing to make the sacrifices that are asked of them?

Once you've excluded those who can't answer all of those questions in the affirmative, who do you have left? Do they represent even a modestly accurate reflection of the community? Almost certainly not.

But some of them will get elected anyway. And how will we judge their performance? The number of speeches made in debates, the number of questions asked? The time taken to answer correspondence or the number of constituency surgeries held? All we will have achieved is the sort of 'tick box', target driven culture that has driven initiative, discretion and innovation out of so much of our public sector.

Is that really what we want? Is quantity, so easy to judge and measure, so much more important than quality, a rather more intangible concept? Is an MP who speaks regularly and adds nothing to the debate better than someone who speaks rarely but whose contributions change minds and agendas? Is rent-a-quote better than research?

And how about this for a contradiction? The public don't want professional politicians, they want rounded individuals. Yet they apparently don't want MPs to have second jobs (which might expose them to the experiences the rest of us have, they want them to live in glorified barracks (which will remove them further from the rest of the community) - in short, they want them to be full-time politicians. Definition of a professional, anybody?

You know something? It almost makes me want to protect what we're about to lose. Tighten up the expenses rules by all means. Encourage MPs to communicate better, yes. Change the electoral system to rid us of one party fiefdoms, why don't you. But for heavens sake, don't do to them what New Labour are doing to the rest of us...

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