Monday, May 11, 2009

Parliament versus the people

The shoddy and demeaning spectacle of MPs milking their expenses’ system at the taxpayers' expense for all it is worth knows no bounds. They have been claiming for just about everything: £60,000 (Employment minister Tony McNulty) for second home allowances, and £25,000 for security patrols (Barbara Follett) down to 69p for a packet of biscuits, £2.50 for eyeliner and even for Kit Kats and an Ikea carrier bag.

MPs have blatantly engaged in property speculation, using allowances to do up homes before selling them on. “Never in my 20 years in politics have I seen the public as angry as they are today and, frankly, who can blame them? It doesn't help that the revelations have come at a time of recession.” Thus the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, East Sussex, once home of revolutionary democrat Tom Paine. Baker’s remarks are part of a growing chorus warning about the yawning credibility gap between the electorate and those who purport to represent them in parliament.

And are the Honourable Members, who include 13 members of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet, expressing any shame or remorse for their venal attitude to office? No, sublimely oblivious to criticism, they are complaining that their abuses were exposed to public scrutiny. The House of Commons authorities are even asking the police to track down the source of the leak that showed how deeply MPs’ snouts are in the trough.

As The Observer commented yesterday, the distance between MPs and ordinary people is now so big that they consider a £24,000 second home allowance as an “incidental” perk. For most, that is a lump sum they would never dream of seeing in their bank account. And so, warnings of the breakdown of trust upon which bourgeois parliamentary democracy relies are flying thick and fast:

 Baker concludes that auditing, transparency and limits on expenses must be imposed – warning that “If we do not, then the trust between the people and Parliament will have been irrevocably damaged, with all the dangers that holds."

 The Daily Telegraph, which first blew the whistle on MPs expenses, concludes that: "There is no doubt that the current system is rotten and cannot survive."

 The Daily Mail says it means a “terminal wipe-out” for New Labour and that Blairism’s claim to moral virtue has been “blown to shreds”. The question now, it asks, is what will be the consequences of all this. “For with such an unprecedented breakdown of Parliamentary integrity and loss of public trust, we are surely in uncharted territory.”

 And last, but not least, a Guardian blogger points out that the corruption shows “how alienated the political classes are from those they serve”, demanding that Oliver Cromwell come back with a peoples’ army to shut the whole thing down.

The haughty obliviousness of New Labour after 12 years in power is indeed mind-boggling. Of course the Conservatives, and indeed Sinn Fein, have also been playing the system for all that it’s worth, but New Labour’s arrogance is far greater than that of the rest combined. It comes at a time when income inequality in Britain is at its widest point in 40 years after 12 years of Labour government, a result of low wages and benefits held below inflation.

MPs have justified their greed by pointing to the difference between their pay and the vast salaries paid to executives in the private sector. In doing so they show that they have nothing in common with the people that they are supposed to represent. Instead they draw their “morality” from the capitalist economic system which parliamentary democracy oversees and keeps in place.

The populist right like the Daily Mail is aware that the limits of parliamentary democracy have been reached and that they will be breached. By its actions, New Labour is opening the doors to dictatorial rule. It’s time to sound the alarm bells loud and clear.

The current scandal shows the urgent need to campaign for a People’s Charter for Democracy. The aim is not to “re-build trust” in a corrupt and undemocratic parliament but to end the rule of political elites, and create new forms of direct local and national democracy through peoples’ assemblies.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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