In which I proffer a little opinion on the whole Jack Straw/Malcolm Rifkind thing

This morning’s headlines are all about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind falling for a Channel 4/ Telegraph sting to where they were filmed apparently offering their services to a private company for cash. Both men have ‘strenuously denied’* any naughtiness, but have also referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards authority. I have thoughts on this issue. They are threefold, and so, because I haven’t done one for a while, I shall share them with you through the medium of a numbered list.

1. The oft repeated idea that politicians need to tackle the perception that they are out of touch with voters completely misses the point.

Malcolm Rifkind, apparently, charges £5-8000 for half a days work. £5-8,000. The average (mean) salary in the UK is somewhere around about £27,000 pa. If we take the lower end of Rifkind’s half-day rate, that’s about 2.5 months income for an average earner. Or to put it another way, the average annual salary equates to less than 3 days work for a senior MP offering their services to a private business. A single jobseekers’ allowance claimant in this country is entitled to £72.40 per week. That’s how much the government has decreed an individual needs to live on after their rent has been paid. Someone claiming jobseekers’ allowance would take roughly a year and four months to get to an income of £5,000.

Rifkind talks about not being paid a salary. He has pointed out that he was referring to a salary from private business, over and above his MP’s salary, but it’s hard to get away from the impression that his £67,000 income from being an MP is insufficiently substantial to stick in his mind.

This isn’t a situation that creates a perception that MPs are out of touch with the rest of the population. It’s a situation that highlights the reality of just how out of touch they are.

 

2. If the best thing you can say about your behaviour is that it’s not actually illegal, that’s too low a bar

Both Straw and Rifkind have been at pains to emphasise that they don’t think they’ve broken and codes of conduct, and believe that their behaviour is well within the letter of the law. Well, so what? We don’t live in a world where there’s ‘illegal behaviour’ and ‘good behaviour’ and nothing in between. It’s the same situation as when UKIP get tied in knots explaining how some specific comment wasn’t racist, as if ‘racist’ and ‘fine’ are the only available categories of activity, and so long as they’re not racist they must be a’ok.

It’s entirely possible for behaviour to be entirely legal, and still abhorrently unethical, or a bit dodgy, or slightly disappointing. ‘Not illegal’ isn’t the same as ‘right’ or ‘good.’ There’s a whole range of behaviour that isn’t illegal but also fails to add to the some total of joy and kindness in the world. More than that, there’s a whole range of stuff that isn’t illegal, but still makes the world a little bit sadder, greyer and more disappointing. Which brings me to my final point…

 

3. Voters aren’t going to respect the office of MP, if MPs don’t respect it themselves

Two former ministers of state, prostrating themselves in front of an overseas agency for a quick buck. Really? Show some self-respect gentlemen. Neither of you, I’m guessing, is short of cash. You’re members of what should be considered one of the most august institutions on the planet. You’ve both been members of government, and you’re both still serving MPs in a period when the reputation of MPs has been tarnished by the expenses scandal, and repeated ‘cash for influence/access/questions’ type hoo-hahs. This is a moment in time when you need to be better than this. This is a moment for saying actually we ARE all in this together, and my MPs salary is more than sufficient to compensate me for spending all my working time on constituency and parliamentary business.

I’m not saying MPs should never have outside interests. I’m very much in favour of MPs coming to Parliament after spending some of their working lives in a real non-Westminster-bubble job, but if you’re an MP who wants to broaden their world view while serving in Parliament, can I politely suggest voluntary work? It’s good for the community. It’s good for the soul, and it won’t cause your voters to think you’re obviously just on the take.

 

And breathe… So there’s the rant for the day. A day earlier than usual I note, but the news world will have moved on by tomorrow, so I figured why wait?

 

*Why are politician’s denials always strenuous? Are denials never issued wearily, angrily, or cheerfully, or are journalists subject to strict limits on adverb use?

 

And if you want to read me in more jocular, more fictional, and less shouty mood, my first novel, Sweet Nothing will be out in paperback from August, and is available to order right now.

In which I think about words and their toxicity or lack thereof

This morning Maria Miller MP resigned as  Culture Secretary. This was not unexpected. She’d clung on for a week since being forced to apologise to Parliament for over-claiming expenses and for failing to co-operate fully with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ investigation into her expenses claim. Many column inches will now be spun out on every conceivable element of this story: precisely how much Miller should have had to repay*; whether the loss of one of his very few female ministers will be an electoral blow for Dave and his massive shiny forehead**; and whether the press launched a vendetta against Miller, the minister tasked with seeing through changes in press standards and complaints procedures***. So I’m not going to expend any more energy on all of that.

What did catch my attention was a single sentence in this morning’s Today programme report on Miller’s troubles. The reporter described the word ‘expenses’ as the ‘most toxic’ word around in discussion of MPs and politicians. And he may have a point. ‘MPs’ expenses’ has become a shorthand for the general perception of sleaze and dishonesty around our elected representatives. But is it really that toxic? Since the expenses scandal broke in all its duckhouse and moat-cleaning how-the-other-half-lives glory in 2009, seven cabinet or junior ministers (including Miller) have lost their posts as a result, twenty-one MPs were either deselected or chose to stand down, and six MPs and two Lords have been found guilty on criminal charges, all relating to expenses. All in all it’s been a pretty poor show, and yet the word we use is ‘expenses’, which, when you think about it is a pretty benign sort of a word compared with some of the alternatives.

Let’s think about a couple of much much more toxic words for a moment. Fraud. Now there’s a nicely toxic word, but it isn’t the word we usually use when talking about MPs’ expenses. We say ‘expenses’ and we roll our eyes, or we say ‘scandal’ which brings to mind heavily stage managed photo opportunities where wronged wives stand by their high-profile man. It doesn’t bring to mind individuals routinely and dishonestly claiming thousands of pounds of public money. Dishonesty. Forgery. There’s two more toxic words, both of which appear in criminal charges brought in relation to MPs’ or Lords’ expenses claims. Cheat. That’s another really toxic word.

In the same week that Miller was clinging by her fingernails to the last tiny threads of both her reputation and her job, her cabinet colleague, Ian Duncan Smith was announcing yet another crackdown on people who overclaim welfare benefits. If we’re applying the same standards to those overclaimers as to Miller, I’m assuming that Duncan Smith’s ‘crackdown’ will involve a system whereby people stand up in the waiting room at their local JobCentre+ apologise briefly for their mistake and then pay back around about 10% of whatever they actually owe. It would only be fair, and we are all in this together, after all. But that isn’t what will happen, because when it comes to the pot of public money we call welfare benefits we’re very happy to use words like fraud and cheat, and those words have force. Those words make us think of deceit and criminal intent and those things lead to condemnation and punishment.

In the heat of the expenses scandal the same logic was applied to MPs. Criminal charges were brought. Jobs were lost, but more recently, the heat has gone out of the conversation. Miller has resigned as cabinet minister. I’d be stunned if she stood down as an MP, and David Cameron has already expressed the hope that she will return to cabinet at some point in the future. The  language about Miller from Downing Street uses words like ‘mistake’ and doing ‘the right thing’ by apologising. So maybe ‘expenses’ is the most toxic word bandied about at present in relation to MPs and politicians, but maybe, it isn’t quite toxic enough.

 

* £45,000 like the Parliamentary Commissioner said

** Hopefully

*** Possibly, but morally it’s all a bit pot-kettle at this point

 

And if that’s enough politics for one day and you’d like to branch out into some of my made up musings instead this is the place to go buy books.