19th May 2009
Bye the Bye
Let’s start with a true story.
Last week, after a hard day’s work in the Town Hall. I returned to my (very
modestly furnished) flat at ‘Bye Towers,’ opened the front door and found four
leaflets on the door mat. One was from the Labour party, one was from
U.K.I.P., one was from the B.N.P. and one was from Princess Cruises. In my
then frame of mind, and given all the political furore, I thought Princess
Cruises would probably get my vote.
Never has there been such a need for strong political leadership and never
have we all felt so let down. Whoever wins the next General election will face
enormous problems trying to balance the nation’s books. But how will they
have the nerve to ask us all to tighten our belts, or share a bath or dig for
victory or whatever, when we know some MPs have been putting in for
everything from groceries and stamp duty on their second homes, to luxury
furniture and goodness knows what, all at our expense? This is on top of a
salary and pension arrangements which look fairly attractive to most folk.
How can we take seriously the acumen of a bunch of politicians who are
supposed to be leading us through the greatest economic downturn since the
1930’s, when some of them are apparently unaware that their own mortgages
might have been paid off, or when (or how much) they have to pay for Council
Tax? Having said that, many do seem to possess sufficient acumen to know
how to minimise Capital Gains Tax liabilities on their second homes, which we
have helped pay for.
It is a very sorry story indeed and the purpose of this week’s essay is to look
ahead through the next 12 months and, ever the optimist, see how these
problems might be resolved.
First, I must say that our democracy is a precious gift and I would caution
those who might think the best solution is to ‘go on strike’ and not vote, or else
to vote for an extreme political party which does not support the democratic
tradition. At least the current arrangements do give us the chance of voting
for an alternative and all sorts of opportunities, through the political process, of
ensuring change. This political process is something previous generations
gave their lives for and we should not put in jeopardy.
Change must come from the top and in fairness, all three major Party Leaders
have made it clear that the current system is unacceptable. David Cameron
was especially blunt last week, in effect naming and shaming some of his
closest colleagues. Nick Clegg has also performed strongly.
Those who appear to have made fraudulent claims, or those who appear to
have avoided tax, must be pursued in exactly the same way as everybody
else. Nobody can be seen to be above the law, especially the lawmakers.
There are a much larger number, however, who ‘acted within the rules’ (as
they keep telling us) who are simply guilty of a gross error of judgement. But
politics is all about exercising judgement. Parliament is absolutely not a
gallery of the brainiest, or the richest, or the prettiest or the fastest. It is,
rather, 600 plus men and women who we have elected to exercise their
judgement on our behalf and conduct that portion of our nation’s affairs which
falls within the remit of Westminster.
By showing such extraordinary lack of judgement, I would suggest that some
MPs negated the whole point of being there.
In this part of the world, few of our MPs have large majorities. Most are
vulnerable to quite modest swings against them and it is a far cry from the
situation twenty years ago when the majorities of most South West MPs could
be weighed, rather than counted. Some voters will be looking at sitting MPs’
expense claims as closely as Party Manifestos and it will take just a few
hundred unhappy electors to unseat our most vulnerable MPs.
I would guess there are Constituency Associations whose Officers and
members are considering whether the behaviour of their MP may put the next
election at risk. All political parties depend upon an army of unpaid workers to
go out and knock on doors, push leaflets through letterboxes and get the
voters out on Election Day. Frankly, this is a thankless task at the best of
But who will want to do this for somebody who has been making the headlines
for all the wrong reasons?
Of course, the conduct of many MPs has been exemplary. In a situation like
this there is always the tendency to say ‘they are all the same.’
But that is clearly not the case. There are MPs who live away from London
who still commute each day and do not claim the second homes allowance.
Some MPs seem to be able to provide perfectly decent service to their
constituents on £80,000 or £100,000, whereas others are up there claiming
£160,000, or more, in allowances. Does this extra money make them twice as
good an MP? I think not.
Locally, our three South Devon MPs have found themselves in some difficulty.
Hats off to the Herald Express for trying to get straight answers to straight
On Wednesday evening Anthony Steen announced he was going to stand
down at the next election. I have a huge amount of affection for Anthony. I
campaigned with him in 2001 and 2005, and know he is good hearted,
independent minded and a dedicated constituency MP who has helped
thousands of people over the years. His decision was honourable and must
put further pressure on other MPs to consider their own positions.
I have some sympathy for Michael Martin, the outgoing speaker. Anybody
who started life in a decrepit tenement in Anderston, Glasgow, (rougher,
apparently, than the Gorbols) and ends up holding one of the highest and
ancient offices in the land, deserves considerable admiration. But, sadly, he
did not rise to this big occasion and instead of using his office to bang heads
together, he became the self appointed shop steward of old fashioned
The way forward is to sort it out at Westminster and very quickly devise a
simple and transparent system for meeting MPs’ necessary expenses. The
local political parties must also sort it out so the electorate are presented with
candidates at the next election who they can vote for, trust and respect.
Mayor of Torbay