MPs’ expenses row is symptom of wider inequality
We have not got stuck into the debate about MPs’ expenses here as everybody else has done it to death. Nor do I think – given voter anger – MPs have any option other than to accept the Kelly recommendations in full, even if I agree that some of them are badly thought through. (Charles Clarke has an intelligent critique).
They are collectively guilty of accepting a system that attempted to disguise their pay, by diverting it into an allowance system, so they now have to take the collective punishment. There do seem to me to be two points – however – worth making:
First, the argument brings to life the extent of inequality of income and wealth in the UK. When MPs complain that they will not have enough to live on they are comparing themselves to the people in society who they consider their equivalents. (‘Peers’ is not a very helpful term in this context!).
MPs’ earnings take them into the top earnings decile where there has been the biggest growth in earnings. MPs are therefore basically making the old trade union demand about maintaining comparability and differentials.
But (to state the bleedin’ obvious myself) most people don’t earn anything like the top decile. They think that MPs should be more like their constituents – and indeed cannot understand ordinary peoples’ lives if they enjoy a “bloated fat-cat lifestyle”.
Both have a point in their way, but as the TUC keeps arguing, the growth of a soar-away group of super-rich at the top has led to a fracturing of society. MPs certainly aren’t super-rich, other than those with private means – and all the ones I know work extremely hard for long hours – but they have wanted to keep up with people of equivalent status. Now they are falling down the cracks opened up in our fractured society.
My second point is that if you play with anti-politics fire you can get burnt.
Many progressives have understandably tried to use the widespread disgust at the worst abuses to build support for constitutional change and wider political reform.
But the obvious beneficiaries of disgust with politics and politicians are those who want to shrink the state. Attacking democratic institutions undermines their ability to introduce policies that can achieve social progress, reduce inequality and increase solidarity. I’m not very keen on letting this group claim the label of “libertarian”, as that seems to be bending its original meaning but my objections are probably too late, so it will have to do.
The Guardian reminds us that Guido’s manifesto says that he wants to develop a “fun, gossipy and acerbic anti-politics form of commentary . . . [with] tabloid news values.” And anti-politics is exactly what the TaxPayers’ Alliance preaches too.
That doesn’t mean progressives have to defend the current set-up – and the way that MPs in safe seats seem to have been more likely to abuse their expenses is certainly ammunition for electoral reformers – but it does mean we have to be very careful to avoid reinforcing anti-politics as we campaign to change politics.