Does it matter? Well, yes, it does, sort of. Of course a lot of the moral outrage is whipped up by a press who delight in creating a ten-day scandal just to show they can. But what it says about our parliamentarians and our democracy is important, I think.
There are MPs out there (from all parties) whose expenses are reasonable by any standards, which means that the excuse being trotted out that ‘it’s the system which is to blame’ doesn’t really wash. Clearly some MPs had enough integrity that they refused to take the piss (or realised that if the expense claims were made public, it wouldn’t look good in the press, which may be a more self-interested attitude, but also demonstrates a good deal more common sense than has been shown by Hazel Blears and co.).
There’s an obvious point about the hypocrisy of our lawmakers having their snouts in the trough even as they ‘crack down’ on ‘benefit cheats’ through a revolting series of adverts designed to play up to the worst kind of class hatred. Of course, even by the government’s own figures, the amount of benefit claimed fraudulently pales into insignificance compared to the amount of benefit that goes unclaimed due to ignorance or pride. (I particularly like the way the fraud figures are given not just in pounds but also in numbers of police, nurses and doctors.)
The failure to realise that a) the expenses figures would probably become public eventually and b) most people would feel a certain sense of outrage about claims for Christmas decorations, manure, moats, and so on, suggests that most MPs are either insanely hubristic, or completely out of touch with the public. I tend to the latter view.
So why is that? I think since the eighties, the way people enter politics has changed. Instead of coming into politics through local grassroots work, a lot of MPs start out as unpaid interns for MPs or think tanks (a route which is open primarily to middle class people whose parents are willing to support them while they work unpaid), and move through the political system until they are chosen to stand as MPs. (The reliance on unpaid internships in politics, arts and the media is one of my particular bugbears, and in politics in particular, it’s defended with the claim that MPs don’t receive large enough office expenses to afford to pay enough people to cover all the constituency work. Oh the irony.)
But I think this really emphasises several problems with democracy in the UK. Today ran a series of interviews with constituents in which one bloke, working on a local community project in Luton, complained that this was basically the kind of problem you get with representative democracy, and argued for a move to a more participatory form of democracy. Representative democracy is problematic in that by electing someone to represent you, it’s very difficult to stop an inbuilt élitism creeping into the system: the group of lawmakers now become ‘above’ the ordinary people, and start to see themselves as above the common herd, rather than representative of the people who elected them. Our current crop of MPs showed how out of touch they are with the population long before the expenses scandal: the Iraq war is only the most obvious example.
This recent scandal will not increase voter turnout. No doubt Cabinet ministers will do plenty of self-righteous finger-wagging about voter apathy following the European elections in June. Some voters may move towards UKIP or the BNP, but it’s difficult to imagine that the Tories and their moats will seem a valid alternative to the Labour party and their toilet seats. Voter apathy is caused by the absence of any real political choice and by the political alienation that a lot of people feel. The expenses scandal can only worsen this.