Up the workers
. . . on pedantry, trouser presses and British primary elections
Whenever it is suggested that MPs’ expenses be cut, someone – usually a sitting MP – insists there must be
a compensating rise in salary. Otherwise, it is said in grave, hushed tones, accompanied by those facial expressions of concern that politicians do so badly, people of modest means would be barred from the Commons. This is the opposite of the truth. By paying what to most people is a handsome annual wage (£64,766), plus lavish expenses and an excellent pension, we make a political career more attractive to the middle classes, who rush to elbow aside aspirant workers. It is argued that politics is insecure, but being an MP allows you to make valuable contacts, and even modest success – junior ministerial office or serving on a select committee – can lead to a consultancy or two.
Alan Johnson, as everyone knows, is the only cabinet minister who has spent more than five minutes in a working-class job. In his Who’s Who entry, Geoff Hoon proclaims “labourer at furniture factory” but he was a law lecturer at 23 and became an MEP at 31. Baroness Royall, Leader of the Lords, claims “flower importer, Covent Garden”. We are presumably intended to deduce she is some kind of Eliza Doolittle figure, but she became a political aide soon after leaving university in her early twenties. At least half the cabinet can be described as professional politicians, who joined think tanks or political offices at an early age, and never seriously embarked on another career.
Several others were lawyers (which explains why they think claiming for busy lizzies and Jaffa cakes is all right so long as it’s “within the rules”) and a few were journalists who never did anything so mundane as finding news, but floated effortlessly into executive or leader writing positions.
Despite moderately successful efforts to make parliament more diverse in ethnicity and gender, nobody seems to bother about the narrow social range. Perhaps, as well as all-women shortlists, we should have all-worker shortlists. If money is a difficulty, a means test could be designed, similar to what pensioners undergo to claim benefits or free care.
The argument that we don’t want to exclude those of modest means is also heard when anyone suggests primary elections. Their introduction would, for example, allow New Statesman readers to punish a sitting Labour MP of whose behaviour or voting record they disapprove, without risking the return of a Tory MP. That might have swung a few MPs’ votes on the Iraq War, as well as moderated their expenses. But, it is said, campaigning twice over would require candidates to raise substantial sums, from their own resources or from donations.
That is no longer a credible objection. Perhaps candidates should receive modest public funds to print and deliver leaflets to every household. Otherwise, they can campaign over the internet, reaching the majority of voters at roughly zero cost. Overall spending could be severely limited – for the main parliamentary elections as well as primaries, if I had my way.
No doubt there will be objections to importing a feature of American politics. But we fight American wars and allow American fast-food chains to invade our high streets. Why should we not adopt (but also improve on) one of America’s better electoral devices?
One of the many deplorable effects of the expenses scandal is that the palace at the other end of the Mall is now treated as though its inhabitants were models of propriety and restraint. Newspapers report the Queen has expressed concern (there is no way of verifying such claims) and some of the sillier commentators, such as the Mail’s Richard Littlejohn and the Telegraph’s Simon Heffer, want her to intervene and dissolve parliament. Yet when it comes to lavish spending for minimal public benefit, plus lack of accountability, Her Majesty and family have nothing to teach MPs. The monarchy, even by Buckingham Palace’s estimate, costs the taxpayer £40m a year (the true cost is probably nearer £150m) and no institution is less transparent about its spending.
These are dispiriting times for republicans. Asked how we would choose a head of state if we sacked the Queen, we usually suggest the Speaker of the Commons would do, being an example of a senior figure who commands respect and affection from all parties. After Michael Martin, we’ll have to think again. Damn the man!
Since I don’t own a trouser press, I always assume a man with suspiciously sharp creases in his trousers is signifying that he thinks himself a notch above me. Or he is selling double glazing. The appliance was invented in the 1930s for middling folk who wanted to give themselves a high-class veneer, but couldn’t afford manservants.
It was regarded as a bit of a joke by the 1970s, when the Bonzos used it as the title of a song satirising middle-class consumerism, which in turn inspired a rock magazine of the same title.
The Lib Dems’ Chris Huhne – who claimed his top-of-the-range trouser press on expenses, but has since repaid the money for it – was a charming and helpful colleague when we both worked on the Independent, but I never liked the look of his trousers. I will, however, forgive the Tories’ Julian Lewis, who told the Telegraph that the alternative to a trouser press was “to stay up all night ironing”. It is progress of a sort when a Tory contemplates ironing his own clothes.
A final, very pedantic note on MPs’ expenses. Over the past two weeks, I have repeatedly heard and read that “the mother of parliaments” is disgraced. No, it isn’t. The phrase, coined by John Bright in 1865, refers to England, the country, not the Palace of Westminster. Its misuse irritates me as much as people saying “disinterested” when they mean “uninterested”. But not as much as the continued failure of Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, to follow my advice and make a principled resignation.
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