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Unfinished business

Politics has taken a pounding. Constitutional reforms are needed – but it may be too late for Labour

Some senior Labour and Tory figures hope privately that the main beneficiary of the anti-politics mood sweeping the country will be the UK Independence Party. That tells us just how deep is the crisis facing mainstream politics after the disclosures that many MPs abused the system of parliamentary expenses.

Investing their hopes in an anti-European party that David Cameron once described as mostly “fruit cakes, loonies and closet racists” is code for saying they hope the British National Party will not win its first seats in the election for the European Parliament on 4 June. The opinion polls, which show growing support for the minority parties, suggest Ukip is breathing down Labour’s neck and could push it into fourth place, and put a rejuvenated Green Party ahead of the BNP. Despite that, Tory and Labour officials fear many voters who tell pollsters they will back Ukip will put their cross next to the BNP in the polling booth. They suspect the furore over expenses will help the far-right party to win three or four seats in the European Parliament.

Newspapers encourage the anti-politics mood, colluding with the Tories by whipping up demands for an early general election. There is a powerful argument for an election. But this is a trap for Gordon Brown: if he refuses to call one this year, he will be accused of blocking the ultimate method of renewing the House of Commons and giving the public a real say on the crisis. If he calls an election, Labour faces a meltdown that could put it out of power for a generation.

A campaign would be dominated by the need to clean up a corrupt Commons rather than the economy – Brown’s last remaining, if dwindling, hope of avoiding defeat.

Brown can’t win, in the other sense of the word. When he points the Speaker of the Commons, Michael Martin, towards the exit door, he is accused of dithering because he didn’t go public. The media portray him as being outflanked by Cameron, even though he has suspended two MPs from the Parliamentary Labour Party and dismissed a minister, while the Tory leader has yet to remove the whip from anyone.

Even before the expenses furore, the Prime Minister had enough problems. Another wobble over whether he is the right man to lead Labour into the general election is inevitable after next month’s county council and European polls. However, there is no sign of the cabinet coup that almost happened last year, and Brown allies are already saying that no governing party could escape punishment after the pounding politics has taken in the past two weeks. And, back in the real world, there is the recession.

Something very big is happening in politics and even the control freaks are at the mercy of events. No one knows where this will end. Tossing the bodies of a few deselected MPs to angry voters is unlikely to quell their anger or satisfy their hunger for real change. The far-reaching implications are dawning on the parties. Labour, in particular, worries how it could possibly fight a general election without either big donors or unpaid foot soldiers, some of whom are so furious about MPs’ behaviour that they are refusing to work for next month’s campaign.

There is another side to the expenses story. Most MPs claim about £150,000 a year in expenses, yet about two-thirds of that goes straight from parliament to their staff. The despised and now doomed second homes allowance costs taxpayers only £12m a year (compared to £56m on MPs’ staff and £57m on salaries). In my experience, the vast majority of MPs go into politics for good reasons, not to make money. But the sheer volume of the scams and fiddles is shocking. It is no longer possible to argue that there are only a few bad apples in the Westminster barrel. Many MPs profess surprise, too. But they can’t all be shocked, can they?

Not surprisingly, the Daily Telegraph did not do Labour any favours with its landmark, if paid-for, scoop. “Brown paid his brother more than £6,000 for ‘cleaning services’”, said the first of many Telegraph splashes. Three days later, an inside page declared that “Cameron is Mr Clean”, saying the Tory leader “has some of the most straightforward claims of any member of the shadow cabinet”. If Brown had spent £680 of taxpayers’ money clearing his wisteria, I doubt that the news would have been buried on page eight. (Cameron is paying back this money. No one has suggested Brown do the same for his flat-cleaning.) All the same, the Telegraph’s decision to publish has been totally vindicated. If we had waited for parliament to issue the censored version of the expenses claims in July, many of the abuses, notably the way MPs switched their designated first and second homes, would have been edited out; many of the mistakes and over-claiming would never have become public.

Announcing plans to end the system under which members regulate themselves on 19 May, Brown hinted at wider constitutional reform. It might involve giving the public a voice in the changes parliament needs, perhaps through a constitutional convention. There is no need to start with a blank sheet of paper: in 2006, the independent Power inquiry, chaired by the Labour peer Helena Kennedy, produced an excellent ­diagnosis of our ailing democracy and plenty of remedies, including an end to the first-past-the-post voting system; a 70 per cent elected second chamber; genuine decentralisation of power from central to local government; a right for citizens to initiate legislation; and allowing the public to make a £3-a-year donation to one party by ticking a box when they vote. Sadly, everyone seems to have forgotten about the Power inquiry, but it is highly relevant to the current crisis.

At the time, Brown welcomed its report, as he flirted with the reformers before taking over from Tony Blair. Although there was grand talk of a new constitutional settlement, Brown’s bottom drawer looked rather empty when he finally opened it in July 2007. The rhetoric was still there; his route map included a bill of rights, and he even hinted at a written constitution. But progress has been slow. The Bill of Rights was delayed by cabinet infighting and overtaken by departmental initiatives such as a constitution for the National Health Service. Lords reform was shelved, wholesale reform of party funding deadlocked. When the economic storm clouds gathered last year, Brown was advised not to waste time on constitutional change or a “Britishness” crusade that would make him look remote.

Reformers disillusioned at Brown’s stalling suddenly have an unexpected spring in their step. They will argue that it is better late than never. They sense one last chance to revive the new politics that Blair and Paddy Ashdown intended to pursue in 1997, but that was largely buried under the Labour landslide.

Clearly a real solution to the crisis in mainstream politics needs to go much wider than the Speaker’s departure, a tighter expenses regime for MPs, scrapping a few Commons committees and a few backbench scalps. It will take much more than this to remove the stains from a tarnished parliament and win back public trust.

The danger for Brown is that producing constitutional rabbits out of a hat might look like the last gasps of a drowning man. Any hint of voting reform would be portrayed by the hostile media as an attempt to line up Liberal Democrat support in the event of a hung parliament.

Brown allies say he was signalling an open mind about change and a desire for public involvement, not an announcement about proportional representation, which opponents claim would weaken the link between MPs and their constituents. Aides insist Brown’s focus is on the cause of the crisis – the Westminster club – and will switch to the economy, health, education and crime when its rules have been rewritten and the members who have brought it into disrepute are kicked out.

I suspect the constitutional reformers will be disappointed, again. After 12 years in power, and with time running out, it may be too late for Labour to complete such a major piece of unfinished business.

Andrew Grice is political editor of the Independent