What does the MP expenses scandal mean for politics?
The short answer is that no-one can know how the deep public anger against MPs will play out. When the Telegraph led for two days on Labour MPs it looked very bad for the government. But now each party’s skeletons have come out of the expenses records filing cabinets the public mood seems much more to be a plague on all your houses.
As Brendan says there are grave dangers that the BNP will benefit, though other minor parties will do well too in the Euro-elections. After all these are PR elections for a body that most voters fail to take very seriously, so voting patterns are always more diverse than in a Westminster election. Indeed the polls already show a boost for UKIP. This is deeply ironic, considering that they are the only party to have had a prominent elected representative convicted of fraud in recent years.
The deep cynicism about all politicians however must be bad for a government that is so behind in the polls. If no-one is listening, it makes any kind of relaunch or fresh appeal that much harder. This is clearly good news for the right even if they have lost respect and support too.
But there is also an ideological boost for them. David Cameron’s early attempts to rebrand the Conservatives as pro-public services have been rather superseded by the new emphasis on reducing the public sector deficit on a rapid timescale. A scepticism that the state can do good has always been a key ingredient in the Conservative coalition. It has not always gone down well with the normal British response that “something ought to be done about it” when any policy issue is raised. The expenses scandal however has caused many to think that MPs are only in it for themselves and that you cannot look to democratic institutions to help create the good society.
Yet part of the outrage is also motivated by an undoubtedly progressive belief that MPs are doing too well out of growing inequality. Anger at Sir Fred Goodwin has moved on to anger at MPs – even if the worst parliamentary offenders have gained a tiny fraction of Goodwin’s loot. MPs promising to write cheques for thousands of pounds to pay back their expenses may well be the right thing to do, but the vast majority of the population could not write a cheque for a thousand pounds just like that. The fact that MPs all seem to have such disposable wealth simply reinforces their bad image.
So that’s one ideological gain for the right and one for the left. No wonder it’s all so confusing.