Tag Archives: mps

Norman Baker performing Piccadilly Circus

Norman Baker, political journalism and hinterlands

It’s an odd evening to defend the MP for Lewes, given that his constituents are currently behaving like a bunch of spoiled children blacking up and attempting to set fire to “politically incorrect” effigies. Nonetheless, I share a lot of the views expressed elsewhere that he performed an excellent service in his role as Home Office minister and can well understand his reasons for resigning.

This blog post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of his resignation though. Rather, it’s a simple observation. Most of the media coverage was transfixed by the idea that Norman Baker was in a band, that it isn’t a wildly good one, and that these facts alone are wildly hilarious. Every TV and newspaper report I came across seemed to fit in a quip about it somewhere

I suspect that it doesn’t especially matter that his interests are in music. In fact, the Reform Club’s middle of the road style from what I can make out is pretty inoffensive to anyone. What seemed to provoke the lobby was that he was doing something – anything – that was slightly out of the ordinary.

When that slightly out of the ordinary thing is practicing music skills on a regular basis, you’ve got to wonder how they’d treat any MP who has personal interests that are really unusual.

Several years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a games club playing a game of Puerto Rico with a Labour MP, at the time a Parliamentary Private Secretary. After the game, we looked over our shoulders to see another group having a raucous game of Cash’n’Guns. He observed “I have to be really cautious about what games I can play in public” at which point I pointed out, to his horror, that he’d just spent the last couple of hours playing a game about the slave trade.

I mention this because he’s right: playing a game in which you wave foam guns in each other’s faces would potentially be career suicide for an aspiring politician, no matter how silly a game it is (which is certainly the case of Cash’n’Guns). But the reason isn’t because doing so would be wrong or wicked in any way, but because it would be seen as weird. And being weird, as Ed Miliband has learned to his cost, is an almost unforgivable crime in modern politics.

The result is, paradoxically, that all our politicians are deeply weird. It’s been almost 40 years since Denis Healey scathingly noted that Margaret Thatcher lacked a hinterland. These days almost none of them have one. William Hague is allowed to write books, albeit on political history. Beer and football are permitted interests, as is primetime television (in moderation). But anything else is treated as shameful and hidden from view, a bit like being gay in the 1950s.

But the weirdest thing about all this is that at the same time, being “wacky” is increasingly the norm for how political journalism is conducted. The model established by Andrew Neil on This Week and the Daily Politics, has now become ubiquitous. Politics is now typically presented on television by people who can’t wait to dress up in silly costumes or wear outrageous hats to make some leaden point or other. Newspaper journalists all seem to consider themselves to be side-splittingly hilarious comedians if my twitter feed is anything to go by. Norman Baker’s crime seems to have been to be sincere in his interests. If he’d done an appallingly awful duet with the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of mention.

We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.

MPs just “don’t get” the minimum wage

David Wilshire has been hilariously telling any journalist who will listen that his £65,000 annual salary is “dangerously close to the minimum wage” – which means that he must be working a 30 hours a day, 7 days a week (or 24 hours a day, 9 days a week – take your pick). But he isn’t the only MP who doesn’t seem to know at what level the minimum wage is set at.

Throughout the week there have been noises off about Sir Thomas Legg’s retrospective limit of £2,000 a year to claim on cleaning, with MPs and trade unionists claiming that it would mean MPs being forced to pay their cleaners less than “a decent living wage.” As is the nature of such things, this “well known fact” has started to get parroted in passing uncritically.

This being British journalism, no journo I have come across has yet had the wherewithall to sit down with a calculator for five minutes to determine the veracity of that fact but it isn’t exactly difficult. First of all, what is a living wage? Well, the London Living Wage, as supported by trade unions, is £7.60 an hour. In my unforgiveably middle class household, we pay our cleaner £9.50. From my straw poll of people I know, rates paid have varied significantly. The most I’ve been heard about is £15, which is apparently the going rate in Kensington.

Let’s assume £15 an hour, which is roughly double the living wage and which amounts to more than I earnt when I started my current job even taking into account national insurance (in fact it’s more than I currently earn, but then I’m down to a four day week these days). Let’s also assume that MPs second home is, at most, a two bedroom flat (that’s a reasonable assumption isn’t it? Second homes are meant to be boltholes, not luxurious family homes. Luxurious family homes are first homes, unless you’re on the fiddle).

It takes five hours to fully clean our four bedroom home here; no-one I know with a flat pays their cleaner for more than two hours to clean it. So, even assuming the £15 hourly rate, that would cost MPs £30 a week, or £1,560. And that’s assuming they use a cleaner 52 weeks of the year – despite the fact that for much of the year they will presumably not be using their London-based flat as Parliament will be in recess.

So, after all that, can anyone explain to me how trade unions of all people have managed to establish that £2,000 is too low a limit to spend on cleaning? The problem, I suspect, is that the people at the top of trade unions these days are about as in touch with the reality of peoples’ daily lives as, well, David Wilshire. Unlike the average MP, they don’t even hold weekly surgeries. The rot in the political class is not limited to Parliament.

So where do we go from here?

The most fascinating aspect of the expenses scandal is how quickly the debate has moved onto a debate about meaningful democratic and constitutional reform. I have to admit, I didn’t quite see it coming, and while there have been rumbles within what you might call the “democratic reform community” about making a big push in the run up to the general election, it seemed to be more driven by the need to be seen to be doing something rather than a belief that it would actually happen.

Yet things have moved on very quickly. I’ve been amazed at the number of Labour politicians who have come out of the woodwork in recent weeks and professed support for, not merely electoral reform, but actual proportional representation. It is fair to say this has been rumbling on for a while now. Compass, and with it Jon Cruddas MP, came of the fence a couple of months ago. Today we see Alan Johnson out himself as well.

Just six months ago, the orthodoxy amongst electoral reformers in the Labour Party was to bang on about Alternative Vote as being the only option – a ludicrous notion since it would cost almost as much pain to achieve but with almost none of the benefits of full electoral reform. Johnson and others are still talking about the Jenkins proposals – a failed and rather complex fudge designed to keep Tony Blair happy which I am sure Roy Jenkins himself would have disowned by now had he lived long enough. But either way we are a long way from having to decide precisely what system should be used; the call at this stage is for a referendum to be held on the same day as the general election to establish the principle.

The important thing that needs to be emphasised is that mere proportional representation is not enough. Peter Kellner (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/politics-the-only-way-is-up-1690137.html) is half right when he says PR has “nothing to do with probity.” Mark Thompson has done a splendid job demonstrating how the first-past-the-post system and expenses abuse are inextricably linked (this is a brilliant example about how a single blog post can influence a national debate, given the number of times I’ve read or heard it referred to by people in the mainstream media over the past week).

Most PR systems in fact do increase probity, but it isn’t the proportionality that does this but the way they allow voters to choose between candidates within a single party. The list system used for the European Elections does not allow for this and we ought to rule it out for Westminster elections straight away. The Additional Member System used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly is an improvement but is still limiting (the Welsh Assembly rule against ‘dual candidacy’ gives voters even less choice).

While my personal preference would be single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, I would be content with any open list system that allows voters to select from candidates rather than parties. The size of the constituency matters too. As we saw in the Scottish local elections in 2007, three member constituencies don’t really allow for much competition within parties at all.

For many people, including some Liberal Democrats, talk of PR is intolerable because it threatens the “constituency link.” The “constituency link” is in fact one of the most pernicious aspects of modern politics. Of course MPs should have a sense of place, but the idea that they should all be responsible for their own relatively small parishes is ludicrous. As Simon Jenkins has cogently argued, as MPs have transformed themselves into caseworkers over the past few decades, they have conspired to strip local government of its authority. And as Andrew Rawnsley puts it, the Liberal Democrats bear a large amount of responsibility for this. Our use of “pavement politics” (which isn’t the same thing as community politics, but rather a perversion of it) as a tool for gaining MPs has made a lot of sense in terms of narrow party interest but has actually hurt the causes for both decentralisation and electoral reform. With the political system in flux and Chris Rennard no longer in the captain’s chair, we have a real opportunity to rethink this.

The biggest irony is that the MP-constituency link is at its closest in the Republic of Ireland, where they have STV. Indeed, Conservative peer David Trimble spends his retirement in the House of Lords railing against it for precisely the opposite reasons that his leader opposes it. To be fair, he has a point, but while Ireland has an average of 26,000 people per elector, in the UK it is closer to 90,000. Irish politics is dominated by two parties divided by history rather than ideology – a state of affairs which is gradually breaking down over time. In the UK, the main thing that causes parties to fight on similar ideological ground is FPTP. In other words, while STV would inevitably lead to more accountability in the UK, we have no reason to expect that the parochialism of Irish politics will come along with it.

Electoral reform is the sine qua non; the one thing that seperates the genuine reformers from the people simply attempting to profit from the debacle – no wonder the Telegraph is in such a flap about it (electoral reform? Fuck! No! More Tories! That’s the answer! Honest!). But won’t be sufficient in my view and will be subject to a full onslaught by the Tory press. For that reason, reformers need to arm themselves with a number of other reforms too. The question is, what?

I don’t think the time has come for a full written constitution to sort everything out, although I do think we’ll have one within 20 years due to a number of factors (if you want to know why precisely, you’ll need to read Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88 and in particular its concluding chapter). Short of that, there have been a lot of suggestions doing the rounds, some of which are better than others.

I’m all for reducing the number of MPs (something which the Tories are demanding, despite the fact it would weaken their precious constituency link), but one of the practical problems the Lib Dems’ Better Governance Working Group came across when we considered this in 2007 was the impact it would have in increasing the dominance of the payroll vote in the House of Commons. Ultimately, I think David Starkey is right: we need to seperate the legislature and the executive entirely. In the short term however, we could simply get rid of the convention that ministers must also be parliamentarians. It is a nonsense in any case which has lead to the Lords being stuffed with placemen despite the fact that their Commons shadows can’t actually ask them any questions. Worried about democratic accountability? Then let them address the Commons regardless of their membership and subject appointments to parliamentary scrutiny.

I’m all for lowering the barriers to get involved in politics and introducing primaries, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will lead to any great increase in participation. If the low level of participation in US primaries (other than major contests such as the presidential nomination) doesn’t convince you, then what about the tiny level number of voters who took part in Jury Team? Opening up the selection of party leaders would be a positive step forward but for parliamentary candidates it would be little more than a figleaf. In any case, the effect of electoral reform would be to introduce a system which in effect combines the functions of both a primary and election.

Recall is problematic. Without electoral reform it would be pernicious, making MPs in marginal constituencies even more vulnerable while leaving MPs in safe seats relatively untroubled. Nick Clegg’s proposal of only allowing recall if the MP in question has been caught breaking the rules is equally problematic: who decides if they broke rules and wouldn’t a vote be little more than a formality if they were censured in such a way? Why not just go straight for a by-election.

With electoral reform however, on reflection (you’ll notice I’ve changed my mind here), I can see it working, if the recall petitions are for recalling all the MPs representing the constituency in question rather than just one of them. That way, it can’t be used simply to force out minority parties.

Finally, there is the question of party funding. There are, in my view, strong arguments for incentive-based funding systems (e.g. small donations up to £50 get matched by state support on a pound-for-pound basis, thereby encouraging parties to collect comparatively small donations from a wide base), but I am under no illusions that now is not the time to win that argument. What most certainly does need to be introduced is a cap on donations so that rich people and union chiefs can’t simply buy the system. Both Labour and the Conservatives have at various times over the past few years claimed to support this in principle but both are totally compromised by a dependency on, respectively, the unions and Lord Ashcroft’s cronies.

The Lib Dems have a window of opportunity to force this issue. As I wrote last month, the party should unilaterally impose a cap of its own. The Michael Brown story rumbles on and Clegg’s defence looks pretty thin. It is time we did something to signal that we have learned from our mistakes (and they are mistakes – I don’t care how many checks you make, you should never take millions of pounds from someone who you’ve only known a couple of months).

Anything else? Lords reform would be nice, but must take a lower priority until the Commons is sorted out first in my view (12 months ago, when the prospect of Commons reform was a distant possibility, the calculation was different). I’d still like to see us move towards agenda initiative and veto. Without a written constitution however, a full system of citizens initiative and referendum would be highly problematic. It would be mistaken though to think we can fit every reform anyone has ever wanted into this narrow window of opportunity. The good news is that if we can fix the Commons, the prospect of more democracy further down the line can only be increased.

Jo Swinson and The Telegraph: complaints, complaints, complaints

Thanks a lot to everyone for all the positive feedback I’ve had about my article this morning. By happenstance, Alix Mortimer has just asked:

Fucking disgusting. Can we get them on article 1 (accuracy) of the PCC code?

The answer, at least in my view, is yes, which is why I’ve just spent the last couple of hours writing letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the Guardian and the BBC. And I would ask you to do the same.

First off, the Telegraph. You can contact them via this page (under “What does your enquiry relate to?” select “Editorial”). My letter reads as follows:

Dear Mr Lewis,

With regards to your article “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” (page 6 of Daily Telegraph #47,888, Thursday 21 May 2009):

First of all, I would like to remind you of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice – of which the Daily Telegraph professes to follow:

“Accuracy

“i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

“ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.”

The aforementioned article contains a number of misleading statements. A superficial reading of the article would lead the casual reader to assume that the record of Jo Swinson MP’s expenses claims demonstrate that she had claimed for makeup and dusters. However, a more careful reading reveals the following information:

1 – that although receipts containing those items had been submitted, there is no actual evidence that these specific items had been claimed for. Indeed, this claim is explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself and no evidence has been brought forward to give us cause to doubt this whatsoever.

2 – furthermore, that in at least one case the items which had been claimed for were clearly marked by an asterisk. In the case of the eyeliner and dusters this was not the case.

3 – the claim that Jo Swinson is “known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance” is entirely unsubstantiated and innuendo-laden. There is nothing remarkable about a Member of Parliament not wishing to look unkempt; indeed they would be open to criticism if they did so.

4 – the headline epithet “makeover queen” is equally unsubstantiated. No-one appears to have called Jo Swinson this apart from the article’s author, Rosa Prince, herself.

5 – the page design is clearly intended to convey the idea that Jo Swinson has had numerous “makeovers” – yet the photographs provided are merely pictures of her looking slightly different over a period of eight years.

The article, ostensibly about MPs’ expenses, is clearly intended to convey the impression that Jo Swinson has been buying makeup and charging taxpayers. Given that the article itself contains no evidence whatsover to indicate that this might be the case, the article is certainly misleading. Including a denial by Jo Swinson does not go anywhere near to correcting this as it works on the “no smoke without fire principle.” Furthermore, nowhere in the article do you state Jo Swinson’s impeccable record in calling for MPs’ expenses to be published and for the system to be reformed.

The ultimate effect of this article is to smear an MP with a strong track record of reform with the same brush as some of the worst offenders. This is a complete distortion.

I must ask you to publish a retraction of the article, making it clear that there is no evidence that Jo Swinson MP has claimed the cost of her makeup on expenses. If I do not receive a response from you within seven days I will take the matter further with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

The BBC’s contact page is slightly harder to find, but can be accessed here. I wrote them the following:

jo090520bbcI am writing with regard to your section on MPs expenses, and specifically your coverage of Jo Swinson MP’s alleged claims (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8047390.stm#swinson_jo).

I have already written to the Telegraph about this story (see below). Your article goes significantly further than the Telegraph article. The Telegraph at all times are careful not to actually claim that Jo Swinson MP claimed cosmetics on expenses, merely that cosmetics had appeared on receipts that had been submitted to the Fees Office (nonetheless, I would still contest that this is highly misleading – and almost certainly mislead you).

By contrast, the BBC article baldly asserts – without any substantiation whatsoever – “The Dumbartonshire [sic] East MP, the youngest in the Commons, put a series of small claims on expenses, including eyeliner, a £19.10 “tooth flosser” and 29p dusters.”

It is wholly unacceptable of the BBC to republish – and indeed embellish – claims made by a commercial newspaper without seeking to substantiate them first. This isn’t journalism, this is engaging in a game of Chinese whispers. I would therefore ask that you publish a retraction to this story, together with an apology to Jo Swinson.

If I do not hear from you within seven days, I will take this matter further with the BBC Trust.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

PS As an aside, I should point out that Jo Swinson’s constituency is called East Dunbartonshire and that photograph you are illustrating this story with is of Alan Beith and Diane Maddock.

Finally, the Guardian are the easiest to contact of all. The Reader’s Editor page is here. I wrote them the following:

Dear Ms Butterworth,

I am writing with regard to your table on page 6 of the Guardian dated 23 May 2009. On this you include a section “cheapest claims – claims that Britain mocked”. The first item you list is “Jo Swinson: Cosmetics included in her receipts. Because she’s worth it.”

In doing so, the Guardian repeats a misleading slur that was published in the Telegraph on Thursday 21 May. On careful reading, the Telegraph article does not accuse Jo Swinson MP of claiming cosmetics on expenses, provides no evidence whatsoever to indicate that she had and the fact that she might have done has been explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself (link). It is therefore a non-story and I have written to the editor of the Telegraph calling for him to retract it (see below).

I note that the Guardian has chosen its words in an equally selective manner, merely saying that the cosmetics were ‘included in her receipts’ not that they were actually claimed for. Unlike the Telegraph however, you do not even allow Jo Swinson a right to reply.

That the Guardian should choose to pilliory a female MP for the crime of purchasing cosmetics is particularly galling. I was under the impression that the Guardian regarded itself as a champion of feminist causes. It is certainly tempting to join in with the anti-politics throng at the moment, but that does not mean accepting every article published by the Telegraph is accurate or free of pursuing a regressive political agenda; it certainly does not mean you have to uncritically go along with explicit misogyny.

I am writing to request that you issue a retraction of this report and an apology to Jo Swinson. If I do not get a response within the next seven days, I will take this matter up with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

While I hope reprinting these letters here will be useful, if you complain please do so in your own words – it will be much more effective that way.

As an aside, the Telegraph appear to have completely lost the plot. Dizzy reports:

Nadine Dorries has seen the blog part of her website instantly taken down after she made allegations against the owners of the Telegraph Group, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay.

Lawyers acting for the Barclay brothers, Withers, instructed the takedown to Acidity via mail last night, citing the Acceptable User Policy. The takedown will be bolstered by the Godfrey vs Demon precendent, where an order can be made and it will be done instantly.

This is quite remarkable behaviour. It is one of the few things they could have done to make me feel even a twinge of sympathy for Nadine Dorries. Furthermore, this isn’t just a nasty bit of bullying by a precious publisher to a blogger, but to a high profile (some would argue over-exposed) MP. This is going to be big news tomorrow.

What an utterly stupid act of fuckwittery.

Parliament, The Telegraph and Jo Swinson

winner-best-ld-blog-postOne of the advantages of being effectively out of action for the past month is that because I haven’t been able to even attempt to cover the expenses row, blow-by-blow, I can now afford to take a somewhat wider view. It has been a fascinating couple of weeks, revealing not just how Parliament works but how the media does too.

Were the Telegraph right to publish these expenses details given the fact that they were due to be published this summer anyway? On balance, I’m afraid I think they were. To start with, I am deeply sceptical that the fees office had any intention of actually publishing in July. They’ve been buying time for literally years now and I have no doubt they would have sought even more time then. Secondly, it was clear that they were falling over themselves to be helpful to MPs with embarrassing claims they wanted to cover up. By fighting the FOI requests every step of the way, ultimately the Parliamentary authorities have made the problem worse. To that extent then, the House of Commons as collective body, deserves everything it is getting right now.

But the problem with the data being in the hands of a single newspaper is that everything we get is transmitted via its own idiosyncratic political position. And the problem with this being an example of chequebook journalism, as opposed to the investigative journalism of people like Heather Brooke, is that the paper has to make good on its investment – and that means extending the coverage and the ramping up the salaciousness of it as much as possible.

In terms of the Telegraph’s politics, it has always and always will be the Conservative Party in print. They couldn’t have got away with just publishing the Labour and Lib Dem expenses details, but it is interesting how they have portrayed the Tory ones. The types of claim broadly fit into three categories. The first, which the Labour MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about mortgages, “flipping” and capital gains. They played the system to make personal profit. The second, which the Conservative MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about moats, duck islands and country piles. Literally, they fit into a different class. The third, which the Lib Dem MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about using the system to get the odd perk, be it a trouser press, an orthopedic chair or a packet of chocolate Hob Nobs.

They category that has captured the public imagination has been the second one. Hogg’s moat has achieved iconic status within just a few days. Yet the Telegraph has conspiciously attempted to portray all three as morally equivalent at all times. It held off publishing the details of Tory MPs for as long as possible, meaning that when they were exposed, Labour had already been buffetted for the previous five days.

I happen to think the house flipping and profiteering is as bad as the showering of cash onto country estates, but the third category most certainly is not. There is no question that the Conservatives have an image problem here and the Telegraph and the Tory press have done all that they can to mitigate this. They have been falling over themselves to portray Cameron’s leadership on the issue as dynamic and forthright despite the fact that, when you look at it in detail, it turns out he isn’t particularly interested in reform at all. He insists that his richer MPs must buy themselves out of the hole they’ve dug themselves but is keen for MPs to be able to continue to profiteer via the ACA. He wants a snap general election, something which would have the effect of scapegoating a handful of MPs in marginal constituencies whilst giving the ones in safe seats renewed terms of office.

A general election now, with the Tories still insisting that (aside from a bit of fiddling), the status quo must prevail, would be a white wash. Yet this is the Telegraph line, too. Fortunately, the Telegraph can’t entirely have its own way and the debacle has revived calls for real democratic reform. It may yet turn out that they have created a monster that they can’t actually control. We can hope.

But the other side that irritates me is the salaciousness of it all. It has started to stop resembling journalism and to start looking somewhat more like expenses porn, designed to titilate rather than inform. What has developed out of this debate over the past couple of weeks is a mood that any expense claim is bad. This is deeply pernicious. Clearly an inner London MP does not need to furnish a second home, but an MP representing a constituency further afield must (this is one of the reasons why I’m sceptical of the calls to scrap the expenses system altogether and replace it with an increased salary – great if you are a single man and have no real intention of representing your constituents, hard cheese if you aren’t). Are we really going to get precious about someone having a telly in their second home? The agenda of the Telegraph has been to convince you that yes, yes you should.

And finally, there is the innuendo. This is the single worst aspect of the Telegraph coverage. Many of the stories over the past couple of weeks have been rooted in the fact that the Telegraph have been able to get away with “X submitted a receipt which included Y” – thus implying that X claimed for Y whilst knowing that if they did say that they would be open to libel. Yet the suggestion is out there and before you can blink, half a dozen other media agencies are repeating the claim as a matter of public record. A lot of the stories they have covered have turned out to reveal nothing more than minor errors in paperwork, but that hasn’t stopped them from smearing everyone with the same brush.

The print version of the Telegraph article on Jo Swinson

The single worst example of the Telegraph coverage can be found in their story about Jo Swinson this week (declaration: Jo is a friend of mine, but I don’t accept this makes a word of what I have to say any less true). The online version of this story has been sanitised by the online editors, who were presumably too ashamed to publish the print version unchanged. The print version has the headline: “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” and contains no less than nine seperate photographs of Jo taken at various stages over the last eight years.

There are so many dreadful aspects of this story, I don’t know where to start. Let’s start with the misogyny. What Jo is being attacked for here is for wearing makeup. The epithet “makeover queen” implies someone who has had a lot of makeovers, yet Jo has never appeared in one of those articles about MPs getting glammed up or anything like that and doesn’t do the daytime television circuit. The article states that Jo is “known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance” yet I can find no media story which has remarked on this before this piece. Google “Jo Swinson” and what you find are lots of stories about her campaigns against excessive packaging, winning local constituency battles such as the one to stop a new prison being named after one of her local towns and the leading role she has played in fighting for Parliament to be more accessible and transparent. Is she a slob? Hardly, but since when did not being one become worthy of criticism?

Secondly, the article is complete, unmitigated bollocks from beginning to end. Read it closely and you will find that the Telegraph isn’t stating she claimed for an eyeliner or feather dusters, merely suggesting that she might have done. There is an irony there in that if Jo had not issued them with as full a statement to act as a counter-balance, their legal team might have blocked the story on the grounds that it would have been clearly defamatory. This paragraph is particularly revealing:

At one point, she submitted a Tesco receipt for £22.67 that appeared to show that the MP or an aide went to the trouble of putting an asterisk next to three items, totalling £5.75, for which she intended to claim — a £1.75 chopping board, a “food saver” for £1.50 and a £2.50 sieve.

In other words, what she did claim for were basic cooking utensils. Nowhere in the article at any stage does it claim that a single item of makeup was claimed for – or even ‘asterisked.’ She is being criticised here, not for claiming an inappropriate item on expenses, but for allowing an inappropriate item to appear on a receipt.

jo090523guardianJo has of course rebutted all this, but that hasn’t prevented other media outlets from reporting it as fact, including the BBC (the cost of Jo’s makeup might not come out of your pocket, but the cost of repeating bullshit claims about her most certainly does – they can’t even be bothered to get her photo right) and the Guardian (in print but again, not online – funny how newpapers are afraid to put their misogynist crap on the web for all to see).

After a fortnight, this story has mutated from one about ministers playing the housing market at taxpayer expense to barefaced sexist lies being spread about one of the Commons’ champions of reform and transparency. Yes, the Telegraph have done democracy a service by breaking this story but never forget that they ultimately represent the forces of darkness.

UPDATE: I’ve written letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the BBC and the Guardian and would urge you to do the same.

If you’re not cop, you’re little people.

With the Convention on Modern Liberty now less than a week away, the Sunday papers have been filled with revelations about MP’s making extraordinary claims on their Additional Costs Allowance. I can’t help but feel the two are inextricably linked.

I’ve spent pretty much my whole career defending politicians – first as a paid party organiser and, more recently, working for a cross-party pressure group. I still believe in representative democracy (although I’m aware it has its limitations), I still believe that political parties are necessary (ditto). I defend the right of MPs to draw out of pocket expenses (indeed many ‘expenses’ are in fact office costs); I would even defend ministers having access to the car pool. But I find it extraordinary at how the political class, as a whole, seems to go out of its way to render itself indefensible (and while there are plenty of honorable exceptions, it does appear to be the class as a whole – why else is it that when we hear about the latest scandals about a few bad apples, no action seems to get taken?). The key question is why?

The main problem appears to be a total disconnect with the public. Has this always been the case? I think it probably has, but as the age of deference has come to an end, politicians have only discovered the values in mouthing platitudes about being the servants of the people. Making the actual changes necessary to make it a reality still escapes them.

So it is that Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram, can claim that painting his mansion is “an additional expense which wouldn’t normally occur” if he wasn’t an MP and keep a completely straight face (my other favourite line is ‘He said he was “very careful” and had always taken “satisfaction” in not claiming all his expenses.’ – as if it is okay to fiddle expenses so long as you do it slightly less than somebody else). So it is that Jacqui Smith can max out her expenses paying for her sisters home and be completely nonplussed over what everyone is so annoyed at her for.

The most outrageous thing about the ongoing scandals over Additional Costs Allowance is that the solution is not only simple, but largely government policy. We already operate a scheme whereby ‘key workers’ such as nurses can have a proportion of their new homes bought by the government so that they can afford to live in areas where they are needed but property prices are sky high. When they sell up, the taxpayer gets the equity back (and makes a tidy sum if the property doubles in value). There is nothing – absolutely nothing – to stop MPs from operating a simily equity scheme. Indeed it was actually suggested by a number of MPs as part of a review run by the Speaker last year. Yet the suggestion was rejected out of hand. What possible reason did they have for doing that, other than simple greed (if MPs think they should be better paid and that in lieu of that fiddling expenses is adequate compensation, then let them say so)?

When you are so disconnected from reality, when you have reached a point where all this sort of thing seems normal, is it really any wonder that they value civil liberties so cheaply? If you regard the public as proles who need to be protected for their own good and regard yourself as something else, then why wouldn’t you?

In short, we have reinvented feudalism while no-one was looking (the subservient role local government plays in relation to national government is another aspect of this). Part of the reason it has happened is rooted in our electoral system. Listening to MPs talk about the “constituency link” in semi-mystical terms is extremely reminiscent of how a squire might talk about his God-given stewardship of his fiefdom. Indeed, this is a relatively recent phenomenon; a century ago, MPs generally regarded the constituency as, at best, an inconvenience. These days, MPs seem to be obsessed with casework, at the clear expense of performing their constitutional role as a member of the legislature. MPs then aren’t just condescending about their constituents; they end up with less time to actually scrutinse legislation.

The problem with all this is it isn’t sustainable. With the economy in the parlous state it is in, there is a faint whiff of revolution in the air which looks set to grow stronger as times goes on. Revolutions rarely end well for anyone, and most in reality get pre-empted before they actually happen, yet the political establishment appears to have losts the flexibility which it is famous for. We aren’t getting reform; we aren’t even being given the illusion of reform.

I went to see Mark Thomas live on Thursday. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but notice that after years of being a cuddly national institution, pulling crazy stunts for the entertainment of the chattering classes, he had a regained certain edge. I have a feeling this is what he was like in the eighties before Channel Four took him under its wing. At times, he simply descended into swearing tirades. Now, I seriously doubt that Mark Thomas will become a latter day Cromwell or Lenin, but it was notable at how indulgent the audience was of this.

As a professional campaigner, it is my job to whip up a bit of revolutionary zeal. I’m proud of the part I played in forcing Parliament to back down over its attempt to exempt its expenses from the Freedom of Information Act last month. But I’m aware that with such anger out there the chances of it resulting in actual riots (such as we saw in Greece at the end of last year) are starting to increase. The one thing violence on the streets is unlikely to result in is the a government u-turn on its anti-civil liberties agenda; quite the reverse. And the public; already whipped into a frenzy about crime, terrorism and immigration, will probably go along with that.

My big hope is that the Convention will wake people up to the wider agenda. If the agenda is purely negative – i.e. to stop the government attacking civil liberties and to scrap its existing agenda for a database state – then it will a) be less effective and b) fail to connect with this wider sense of dissatisfaction. We need to link the two, which means both talking about constitutional reform and a more engaged, proactive citizenry.

URGENT – Help us to stop the plot to conceal MPs’ expenses (crosspost)

Defend the right to know about MPs' expensesI have crossposted this message from here and would urge people to do the same. More to the point, I’d urge them to carry out the action – we only have until Thursday!

Dear friend,

Today I had intended to write to you to encourage you to take part in the Convention on Modern Liberty, of which Unlock Democracy is proud to be a partner organisation. I had intended to write about what an inspiring event I hope it will be, the impressive lineup of speakers, the nationwide parallel sessions that Unlock Democracy is organising with NO2ID and its timeliness.

But events, as ever, have overtaken us.

On Thursday, the Government sneaked out the draft of the innocuous sounding “Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order.” This “statutory instrument” (not an act), if passed, will

“…change the scope of the application of the [Freedom of Information] Act in relation to information held by the House of Commons and House of Lords regarding expenditure in respect of Members of both Houses. This includes information held by either House about expenses claimed by and allowances paid to Members. Such information is no longer within the scope of the Act.”

In short, they intend to exempt the expenses of MPs and Lords from the Freedom of Information Act and thereby close them to public scrutiny. This is to be passed almost a year to the day after the Derek Conway scandal erupted, when it emerged that the MP had been paying his sons as research staff while they were at university, despite not being able to demonstrate that they had actually done any work for him. If the Government gets away with this, scandals such as this will be allowed to continue and we will not be permitted to find out about them.

It is completely outrageous that the Government should seek to do this at all, let alone in such an underhand manner. The Government is planning to put us all on a national identity database, force us to carry identity cards, keep the DNA of millions of innocent people on a database and to read all our emails, phone and internet records regardless of whether we are supposed to have done anything wrong. Their argument is always “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Why, then, is it one rule for us and another rule for politicians?

What’s more, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, one of his first acts was to publish the Governance of Britain Green Paper which asserted that “It is right that Parliament should be covered by the [Freedom of Information] Act.”

This proposal is going to be debated in the House of Commons this Thursday – we don’t have much time. For this reason I am strongly urging you to do the following as a matter of urgency:

  • Write to your MP (use www.writetothem.com) and urge them “to sign the Early Day Motion “Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 (Jo Swinson MP)” – the text of this motion is below for your reference.
  • Phone your MP’s office (the main switchboard is 020 7219 3000) and ask to talk to him or her to ask them to oppose this proposal.
  • If you are on Facebook, join our group and invite all your friends to join – ESPECIALLY the ones not normally interested in politics.
  • Forward this article to everyone you know either by email or any social bookmarking websites you use.

Please, please do this as soon as you can. We can defeat this proposal if we put pressure on MPs this week. In 2007, a group of backbench MPs attempted to get a similar proposal passed. We beat them then and we can beat them again.

With best wishes,

Peter Facey
Director, Unlock Democracy

PS Katherine Gunderson has written an excellent chapter on Freedom of Information for our book Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88. I would encourage you to buy a copy for yourself – and your MP!

PPS For more information about the Convention for Modern Liberty, please see the website.

TEXT OF EARLY DAY MOTION

Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009
Primary Sponsor: Jo Swinson (LD, East Dunbartonshire)

That this House notes with concern the provisions in the Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 to exempt remove the expenses of Members of Parliament and Peers from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act’; notes that this order will single out MPs and Peers in a special category as the only paid public officials who will note have to disclose full details of their expenses; notes with concern the regressive effect of this Order on Parliamentary transparency and the detrimental impact it will have on Parliament in the eyes of the public; calls on Ministers to block or repeal the Order in the interest of MPs’ and Peers’ accountability to members of the public.

MPs: incumbancy and miscommunication

I got not one but four annual reports in the post today by my MP Andrew Dismore, with the promise of a basketful of others if I can claim to be jewish, chinese, tamil, cypriot and a bunch of other ethnic communities (Labour corporatism is alive and well).

In fairness to him, his reports are quite comprehensive and, as he is not shy in emphasising (not that I can see any of his constituents caring), he has eschewed the glossy-photo-zero-content approach that MPs of all parties frequently adopt. But it does raise the issue of the MPs’ Communications Allowance, introduced last year, and whether it is a good use of taxpayers money.

There have been two other examples of this allowance being spent which have got me thinking. The first is the Emily Thornberry debacle which I highlighted yesterday. The second is Peter Hain’s website which Mark Pack was having some fun with on Lib Dem Voice. All three of these examples are Labour, but I’m really not making a party political point here.

Firstly, La Thornberry has been forced to repay the Serjeant-at-Arms for the cost of the stationery (sic) she used. But those funds could come straight out of the Communications Allowance. That is certainly inconvenient, but it is hardly a major punishment for abusing the system and getting caught. Learning this, most MPs will learn the lesson that they might as well try it on. Even if they only get away with it 50% of the time it will still be worth it so long as they manage their Communications Allowance carefully.

Secondly, Hain. Back when Jack Straw was making the case for the Allowance, he argued that it would be necessary in order to enable MPs to better communicate with their constituents online. That seemed bogus at the time, and Hain’s website demonstrates what nonsense it was. It has much less functionality than the average Blogger account, and yet he boasted that “I have tried to make it possible for you to add your own views” – a feature which amounted to a facility allowing visitors to send him an email. Some web designer has been paid what one guesses must be a tidy sum for coming up with this fairly useless website at taxpayers, all in the name of “improving communications”. If Hain had been forced to use MySpace, for free, he’d have ended up communicating with more constituents (a point which Adrian Sanders proves every day).

Thirdly, back to Dismore. While his report is fine per se, it does epitomise everything that we always feared the Communications Allowance would be used for. It is incumbency protection, pure and simple. It enables the MP to issue a report to constituents completely on their terms and unfiltered by the media. You can be sure that if Dismore felt the glossy-photo-zero-content approach would have been better for votes, he’d have adopted it unapologetically.

Whenever you mention this fact, MPs, especially Labour MPs, start screaming “Michael Ashcroft! Michael Ashcroft!” I would personally be happy to cap all major donors like this – and limit trade union funding as well – but I have no problem in principle with political parties using donations from individuals for campaigning. I also accept that there is nothing wrong in principle with MPs having regular ways to communicate with their constituents. But just as we don’t allow a government minister to make a statement to the Commons without the opposition having a right to reply, shouldn’t we allow political rivals in constituencies to reply when MPs issue their reports?

Here’s my proposed solution. Scrap the Communications Allowance completely. Instead, twice a year the local Elections Officer will preside over the sending out of an MP’s report. Not dissimilar to the information packs that get sent out for mayoral elections, the MP would have, say 4 pages in this report completely under his/her control in which to make his report, followed by another 4 pages that the party which came second could use to respond (and yes, that would probably involve promoting their candidate!), followed by 2 pages each for the parties that came 3rd and 4th respectively. Parties would of course be free to include things like membership forms and links to their websites for more information. The Elections Officer could use the pack to include other things such as the recent election results and the electoral registration canvass (which they have to send out anyway).

There would be several advantages to this. Firstly, if the MP just produced a content free puff piece, his rivals would be able to make that point in no uncertain terms. Secondly, coming second, third and fourth in an election would matter, which would (marginally I admit) encourage more competition. Thirdly, it would be relatively cheap, especially if it could be incorporated with existing commitments such as the canvass. Fourthly, the money wouldn’t go to parties directly and the cost would thus be equitable on a per-capita basis – one of the big problems with other systems of party funding, particularly the money-per-vote system recommended by Hayden Phillips, is that parties can target that money and thus use it to exaggerate the already considerable biases in the system.

What do you think?

Tory MPs split down the middle

Iain Dale declared yesterday that “we are all progressive Conservatives now.” Er, no you ain’t:

On every statement apart from one, 83 per cent or more of Labour MPs agree (the exception being whether Britain is a united country, where there is a 59 to 41 per cent split).

By contrast, on several key questions Tory MPs are deeply divided. For instance, against the view of Mr Cameron, just 46 per cent of Tory MPs agree that gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples, with 54 per cent disagreeing. For comparison, 83 per cent of Labour MPs and 92 per cent of Lib Dems agree.

Similarly, there is a 52 to 48 per cent split among Tories on whether “the diverse mix of races, cultures and religions now found in our society has improved Britain”. By contrast, 92 per cent of Labour MPs agree, as do all Lib Dems surveyed. And while Labour MPs are virtually unanimous (94 per cent) in agreeing that “one of the things that would most improve life in Britain today is people being more tolerant of different ethnic groups and cultures”, that is the view of only 67 per cent of Tory MPs.

Once again, I have to ask: who is leading the Conservative Party? Certainly not David Cameron.