MPs allowances – Tribune editorial 15th May 2009

Republished from the magazine.

JOHN ROBERT CLYNES knew something about the hardship of life and the impossibility of making ends meet as a Labour MP. The son of a labourer, he began work in a cotton mill when he was 10 years old, became involved in the nascent trade union movement, was elected to the House of Commons among the first-ever elected Labour MPs in 1906, went on to be leader of the Labour Party – for just one year – and Home Secretary under Ramsay MacDonald in 1929.

After he lost his seat in the great Labour wipeout of 1931, Clynes wrote an impassioned appeal to The Times asking whether it was right, in a civilised society, that somebody who had served in one of the four great offices of state should be living in penury.  Winston Churchill reportedly organised a whip round and the first seeds of today’s parliamentary remuneration system for MPs were planted. Opposition leader Clement Attlee had to fall on the generosity of Stafford Cripps – without whom Tribune would not exist – in order to be able to afford to lead the Labour Party in Parliament. Three decades later, Labour MPs in the late 1970s and early 1980s took it as normal to either sleep in their offices or schlep back to their bunks in the Salvation Army hostel at Kings Cross or the homeless hostel near Buckingham Palace.

While well-heeled Tories lived comfortably within the means required to represent their seats and work in London, the history of working-class representation at Westminster has – with the ameliorating help of their respective trade unions – been a story of financial, material and familial hardship. It was right to address this through the introduction of properly independent pay bodies.

Then it all started to go wrong. Under Margaret Thatcher and subsequent governments salaries were held down for political reasons and the system of allowances and expenses crept in and grew into the monster which is now devouring the credibility of Parliament and MPs, both guilty and largely innocent of corrupting the system. It has gone from one extreme to the other, from penury to Liberty Hall.

The revelations over the systematic exploitation of expenses and allowances have rightly caused public outrage, shocking as they are in exposing a culture of greed and venality. The scale of the institutionalised fraud on the taxpayer – it is nothing less, in its hitherto secrecy – whether from the outrageous home decorations to the banal pettiness of claiming for chocolate bars is dismaying to those who, like Tribune, have always opposed the knee-jerk view that “they are all in it for themselves”. The counter argument has been made painfully more difficult to sustain even though in the majority of cases it pertains.

It is insufficient and even more damning to claim in mitigation that they were not breaking the rules. Where was the moral compass of MPs claiming up to the maximum for £400 in food allowances a month – a little under the annual state pension allowance?

Nor is it sufficient to apologise, as all the party leaders have done, for the system – a system which they were well aware of and only apologised for after it was flushed out against the wishes of MPs. Nor does returning the money exonerate any of those who have done so. Their wrongdoing lay in the fact that they saw nothing wrong in what they were doing. They, the House and Speaker Michael Martin – who should be dragged, protesting, from the chair he has fouled, and doused in the Thames – just do not get the significance of that which they have mired themselves in.

Its root lies in a passing phrase used by Gordon Brown in his speech to nurses this week when he referred to “our profession”, the profession of politics. We now have a professional political class whose first job will never be in a factory and whose first calling is not to perform a public service but to exact maximum reward for their self-appointed place in the political elite. An elite which is doing British democracy and its citizens no service. An elite which, in Labour’s case, should now be held accountable to their constituency parties.