Exclusive: Lord Paul responds to official report recommending his suspension

“I am disappointed that I seem to have been treated more harshly than others.”

For journalists, the parliamentary expenses scandal is the gift that never stops giving. Yesterday's Sunday papers – chief among them the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph – led with claims that three peers face suspension from the House of Lords over their expenses claims: Baroness Uddin, Lord Bhatia and Lord Paul.

The report of the House of Lords committee for privileges and conduct to which the Sunday papers referred to has been published today, and it does indeed recommend suspending the three aforementioned peers from "service of the House".

In reference to Lord Paul, the well-known businessman, deputy Lords speaker and Labour Party donor, the committee says:

27. We do not feel justified in finding, on the balance of probabilities, that Lord Paul acted dishonestly or in bad faith. However, his actions were utterly unreasonable, and demonstrated gross irresponsibility and negligence. They therefore render him liable to sanction by the House.

28. In mitigation, Lord Paul has apologised and repaid the money wrongly claimed.

29. We recommend that Lord Paul be suspended from the service of the House for four months, starting on the date on which any suspension motion is agreed by the House.

In the past few minutes, I have been speaking to Lord Paul to get his response to the committee's conclusions. He said:

I welcome the publication of the report from the House of Lords committee for privileges and conduct. First and foremost, my honesty and integrity have been upheld. I have never tried to claim anything which I did not believe I was honestly entitled to claim at the time. I am pleased that the committee for privileges and conduct has come to the same conclusion and has found that my actions throughout the investigation have been transparent and consistent and that the claims were honestly made and not in bad faith.

It is worth remembering that I requested the Clerk of the Parliaments, Michael Pownall, to conduct an investigation into my expenses on 12 October 2009 – the day after the Sunday Times first published its allegations against me. I also voluntarily and immediately repaid the full amounts in question, about £40,000, which I had claimed from January 2005 to June 2006. In fact, I voluntarily repaid a greater sum than the House could have required me to pay, both in respect of night subsistence and in respect of mileage allowance. There is no question about the propriety of any other claim made by me during the 14-year period that I have been a member of the House of Lords. It should also be remembered that, back in March, the Metropolitan Police decided there was no case for me to answer.

But does he deny that he registered an Oxfordshire flat as his main home, despite never spending a single night there, while claiming money in overnight expenses for a London property?

I do not dispute the basic facts. I made claims which, with the benefit of hindsight, I should not have made. I may have been negligent, as the committee has said, and the commitee has accepted my apology. Before this matter was raised by a Sunday newspaper late last year, however, there was no definition in the House of Lords of residence and a large number of peers therefore fell into error when interpreting the meaning of residence in the rules. There was no guidance on the meaning of "main residence" until March 2010, and it was finally clarified in July 2010 – that is, ten months after the allegations first appeared in the press. During the time period in question, 2005/2006, there was no definition of "main residence", nor was there even guidance.

I do not believe that either the subcommittee or the full committee can in effect apply the perspectives and standards of 2010 to actions and rules operating in 2005. I believe that the provisions which applied then on the designation of principal residence were wholly unclear. I believe that the fact that they have been either amplified or modified since then, and finally dispensed with by the House, strongly underlines my position. Given the lack of clarity in the rules which applied at that point, I do not believe that my own conduct in any way merits the decisions which the subcommittee and now the full committee have reached.

He has a point. And guess what? The new rules on allowances, agreed by the Lords authorities earlier this year, and backed by the coalition government and the Labour Party, might make things worse.

As the Sunday Telegraph's Patrick Hennessy noted yesterday:

The new regime will allow all peers to claim a lump payment of £300 a day for "clocking in" at parliament. Critics have claimed it could be open to abuse as it offers no safeguards against peers "signing in and sloping off". Under the new scheme, which is based on proposals made by the Senior Salaries Review Body last November, no receipts, or proof of a second home or hotel stay, will be required to claim the payment.

This is madness. Have officials in the House of Lords lost their minds?

And on what grounds have they gone after Paul, Uddin and Bhatia and ignored or excused the false/inaccurate/dodgy claims of dozens of other peers uncovered in the press? From the Sunday Times, in May 2009:

– Baroness Thornton, a government minister, claimed up to £22,000 a year in expenses by saying that her mother's home in Yorkshire was her main home.

– Lord Ryder, a former acting chairman of the BBC, claimed more than £100,000 by saying that a converted stable on his parents' country estate was his main home.

Then there is Lord Clarke, the Labour peer and former chairman of the party, who admitted that he "fiddled" his expenses to make up for not being paid a salary and claimed for overnight stays in London when, in fact, he drove home. His punishment? From the privileges committee report in March:

Accordingly, having taken into account his repayment of £9,190 to the House, and his full co-operation with the investigation, we recommend that Lord Clarke make a personal statement of apology to the House, before the end of the present session of parliament, to apologise without reservation for his misuse of the scheme.

So Clarke got off with just an apology. Isn't that odd? What about Lord Colywn, the Tory peer who claimed £170,000 by designating a Cotswolds property as his main home? Here is the bizarre verdict of Michael Pownall, the Clerk of the Parliaments (from February):

He has assured me in writing that his claims are an accurate record . . . he has also assured me that he lives predominantly in Gloucestershire when the House is not sitting . . . Given Lord Colwyn's assurances, I consider that his designation meets a test of main residence under the current scheme and accordingly do not uphold the complaint against him.

Great. Fantastic. That's OK, then. He "assured" the Clerk – and got off without a punishment. The whole process seems totally arbitrary and random. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Lord Paul agrees:

I am disappointed that I seem to have been treated more harshly than others. Some of those peers accused of making incorrect claims were dealt with by the Clerk of the Parliaments, some by the privileges committee. Some have been subject to an inquiry, some have not; some have apologised, some have not; some have voluntarily repaid the sums incorrectly claimed, some have been asked to repay those sums; now, for the first time, three peers have been suspended while others have escaped suspension.

Despite the hurt that this has caused me, I accept the committee's decision in the best traditions of parliamentary democracy.

On a side note, some have suggested to me that part of the reason Paul has been the subject of such a severe sanction is that the five-member subcommittee on Lords interests, which investigated the three peers and recommended suspension, included Derry Irvine, the ardent Blairite. Paul is a prominent Brownite; in his own words, he has been a "steadfast friend and supporter of Gordon Brown whom I believe was a great prime minister".

A source present at Lord Paul's testimony to the House of Lords subcommittee in June tells me that Irvine's face blackened when Paul suggested he was being targeted by that committee because of his links to the former prime minister.

As Blair's Lord Chancellor, Irvine is (in)famous for having spent £650,000 of public funds on redecorating and refurbishing his official apartment in the House of Lords, including £59,000 on wallpaper. He refused to apologise for his acts at the time and described the spending as a "noble cause". That he now sits in judgement on the expenses claims of his fellow peers is, ahem, ironic.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”