Angela Smith is being mocked, but she's right: Westminster's rules are bad for democracy

The defector's complaint that she will not recieve her loss of office payment is hard to sympathise with, but it reveals a real problem. 

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Angela Smith, the Labour MP turned Liberal Democrat MP, has been widely mocked after a letter in which she complained to Ipsa, the body which oversees the pay of parliamentarians and their staff, that she would not receive her loss off office payment – effectively her redundancy money – if defeated in Altrincham and Sale, the Tory-held constituency she is standing in, having been elected as the MP for Penistone and Stockbridge.

I hold no brief for Smith and the tone of her complaint is poorly judged, but her complaint speaks to a broader problem with how Ipsa’s reforms following the 2009 expenses scandal have created terrible incentives for MPs – and that sooner or later these incentives may change the outcome of an election.

Before the election, whether through retirement or defeat, MPs received a loss of office payment when they stood down. While many newspapers made hay describing this as a “golden goodbye”, and it annoyed MPs in marginal seats that their colleagues in safe seats could claim the same benefits they received in defeat as a nice sweetener at the end of a planned retirement, the new system has terrible repercussions, particularly when, for one reason or another, an MP and a political party part ways.

While most MPs’ careers end in either defeat or retirement from the party and constituency they represent, in some cases, MPs defect – or, more importantly for our purposes – are deselected or forced to resign their party affiliation. In that scenario, an MP faces a choice: they can pay a £500 deposit to stand in their seat as an independent and receive three months’ salary, or they can stand down and not do so.

Many MPs opt to stand as independents because they sincerely believe they can win or have something to offer, but others privately admit that they have only ended up standing because they cannot manage without their redundancy money.

Thus far, this hasn’t mattered all that much. No candidate standing as an independent has done so in a seat where their votes have had much chance of changing the outcome. But let’s imagine that, say, Gloria De Piero, Labour MP for Ashfield, had opted to stand as an independent rather than simply standing down and forgoing her loss of office payment. While the scale of an MP’s personal vote is often overstated, she only won by 441 votes and it is clear to me having been to Ashfield that there are certainly enough Labour voters who have been helped by De Piero and feel a strong enough personal affinity to her, that she could have tipped the seat to the Conservatives. She would not have had to do any better than the average former MP standing as an independent to change the result.

While Smith’s decision to claim that she is being “discriminated against” is poorly chosen, she is half-right: Ipsa’s rules incentivise MPs who have been deselected or forced to stand down in some scandal to run as independents, causing trouble for their local parties and potentially changing the result of the election. This rule might not have an impact at this election but sooner or later it will.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.