Faith, Reform and Danger

Michael Sparling

There are many things I believe need to be done to confront this latest, dramatic crisis over faith in British politics.

Firstly let me say that it is sad that the anger directed at Westminster has had such a negative impact on those at a local level who are out there doing their best for their communities in difficult circumstances. Certainly, Members of Parliament, the institution of Parliament itself and also the party machines have a lot to answer for.

Now is not the time for appealing to the status quo, so here are some of my thoughts on what can be done.

Labour were bold in the early years of this government, particularly in the area of constitutional reform. This process needs to be taken further now. If the events of recent weeks don’t serve as a catalyst for further reform, then the government’s constitutional reform agenda can credibly be called into question. I believe that the Jenkins Report needs to be revisited urgently. Electoral reform at Westminster is still outstanding. House of Lords reform too must be prioritised. The change initiated in the early years of this government was decisive, necessary and long, long overdue. That said, the current settlement is a half-baked job that further undermines Parliamentary authority and any remaining faith the public have in the institution. I believe that there should be fewer Members of Parliament. Almost countless millions have just voted in India and yet they have fewer Parliamentary representatives. This could be managed effectively by introducing border changes resulting in 50 fewer returns over the course of the next three Parliaments. This will not be a popular one, but I believe that Members of Parliament need to be reimbursed adequately in the form of their salaries. At the same time I believe the allowances system must be culled and the new transparent arrangements managed by an external, independent auditor. 

Ultimately, whether those who are angry like it or not, we need politics. The dangers of protest votes and knee-jerk reactions in this election are, as I have stated in previous postings, all too clear. Those families who need help the most are the ones who will ultimately suffer if those elected in local communities and to Europe do not have the capacity to govern or represent fringe sentiments – not the politicians whose wrath such protest votes are aimed at.

Michael Sparling is the Labour Party candidate in the Devon County Council elections (Tavistock Division)


The Bob Spink way

Bob Spink, Independent MP for Castle Point, Essex, gave his backing for an expenses study in February 2008. 

Spink “called for an end to all MPs’ allowances, for the House to deal with all MPs’ costs and be the employer of all MPs’ staff, and for all staff to be properly qualified”, the echo reported last year.

Later that year Spink defected from being a Ukipper to an independent on the basis that Ukip had no whip, and therefore being as good as an independent anyway, despite continuing to be an avowed Ukipper.

It was a brave move of Spink to talk out on expenses, even going on Newsnight to discuss it, because he had been caught up in a row in 2007. Reported in the same paper, and by the same reporter, it emerged that Spink ranked among the top 10% highest spending MP’s “so [he] can do the best possible job for [his] constituents”.

The article explains;

“The MP, a member of the cross-party Parliamentary science committee, claimed £152,937 between April 2005 and March 2006, according to his expenses – which he has released ahead of other MPs.

His spending ranks him 64th out of 646 MPs.

On top of his stated salary of £60,000, the annual gross income for Dr Spink adds up to almost £213,000.”

Which is all the more reason why I was (not) surprised to see his smiling face staring back at me in today’s echo, pointing out that ‘we [big spenders] must hang our heads in shame’. It turns out that Spink claimed a further £135,016 between April 2007 and March 2008, which is a curious amount given the things he doesn’t claim for (as reported today, he doesn’t claim for charity dinners anymore, dog food, gardening costs nor part of his second home which he puts £10,000 towards out of his own pocket). Where is this and his salary going?

He has apologised for his expenses, though (phew!).

Compare his to Thurrock Labour MP, Monarchy basher, and Russian spy enthusiast Andrew Mackinlay, who issued a statement “saying he was a low claimant who did not profit from the system”. A last minute goal in an area flirtatious with the BNP.

Second most important break-up

I suppose in some ways I’m overjoyed to hear about the Peter Andre/ Jordon break-up, it does mean that the break-up of the Labour Party could be only the second most important this year. Although let us get one thing clear, though David Miliband has been accused before (and, to be sure, after Tim Shipman’s article for the (sick) Daily Mail today will be accused again) he will not be fronting a rebellion. Absolutely not. He realises that if his eyes are on the prize (which, okay, they obviously are) then a pre-2010 rebellion, let alone a post 4 June rebellion, would hurt his chances. Those likely to support Miliband’s leadership will most likely be the ones who call for unity.

One commentator who may well support an eventual Miliband leadership, but who will certainly moan and create a fuss (if she hasn’t, in anticipation done so already) about an Alan Johnson leadership is Anne Perkins, leader writer for the Guardian. In her article today, pouring scorn on Polly Toynbee’s call for a Labour plot, she notes that “[s]acking the prime minister with no sensible way of replacing him …would not rescue the party or the government” for the reason that “[w]hat this government needs to do is go home and prepare for opposition.”

Surely Perkins doesn’t mean prepare for an opposition victory. But I will say that if we don’t take heed of what Toynbee has said, prepare for an opposition government is what we shall have to do. Has Perkins seen the popularity polls? But change should not be just about polls, Brown’s inability to render a truly leftwards shift is as good a reason as any.

And Perkins’ wholesale dismissal of Alan Johnson on the basis that, in her words, “he has been in government for a long time, with … a record of studious loyalty” is not a good enough reason to ignore a prosperous Johnson leadership in the future.

My eggs are in no basket of realistic leader challengers yet, I hasten to add. But we will definitely need another leader to inform the public of the 2.5 million unemployed this summer, provided that Brendan Barber, General Secretary of TUC, has predicted this figure correctly. Moreover, we will surely need another leader to tell the public that something will be done about it, not just the offering of  hypothetical tory-led outcomes.

The long awaited presence of policy by Brown has come, as the Times has rightly noted, a little too late for voters.

The tories of course have one up over Labour on the expenses front, with Cameron calling for serious punishments if his party don’t pay them back (although Harriet Harman has said she has something in the pipeline).

In addition to Cameron himself paying back the £680 he had claimed to have wisteria and vines removed from the chimney of his constituency home, he has said that;

• Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, would repay £7,000 he claimed for furnishing a London property in 2006 before “flipping” the second home designation to a new one in his Surrey Heath constituency.

• Oliver Letwin, who is in charge of the Tories’ general election manifesto, would repay the £2,000 he claimed to replace a leaking pipe under a tennis court.

• Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, would repay £2,600 for home improvements.

• George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, would repay the £440.62 paid to a chauffeur company to drive him from Cheshire to London.

• Alan Duncan, the shadow leader of the Commons, would repay almost £5,000 for gardening expenses.

• Kenneth Clarke, the shadow business secretary, would stop claiming a single person’s discount on one of his council tax bills.

• Francis Maude, Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers would stop claiming for their second homes in London.

David Willetts would repay £115 charged for electrical services.

Busy David Cameron also gave the Chingford Skinhead a right telling off today, warning him that with his comments on not voting for the main 3 in the european elections, he is treading a very careful path, and that if he slips off that path he could find himself an independent. That is until he joins the party of independence.

Of course, Nigel Farage, leader of the Ukippers welcomed Tebbit’s intervention, and frankly I welcomed this, its going to make backtracking far more difficult for Tebbit.

But an apology for inciting the far-right from him is about as likely as House of Commons speaker Michael Martin’s apology to Kate Hoey, for the “pearls of wisdom” comment.

On the subject of Tebbit, Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, writing for the telegraph today asked us if we could ever imagine Tony Benn urging supporters and members not to vote Labour over nuclear disarmament or Nato. Though Benn, he added, “was hostile to Labour leaders and policies, he never called upon party members to desert their own party.” A lesson we might still cling on to, desparately, in these times of turmoil.

Change, can we believe in?

In Sweden its known as the “Toblerone affair“. In October 2005, the social-democrat Mona-Sahlin – the country’s youngest MP – was looking to replace Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, who had announced his resignation. Only these hopes were dashed when it emerged that Sahlin had used her government credit card to purchase a delightful chocolate snack.

In Sweden tax returns are transparent, and due to Sahlin not paying the money back, her petit crime was revealed (not to mention the private cars, unpaid fines etc etc).

So when apologies are being thrown about left, right and centre – Gordon Brown’s cross-party apology, David Cameron’s umbrella apology, Richard Timney’s porn apology (that cringeworthy video again) – and calls for system change are a symbol of repent, what is it that can change the expenses system?

(I don’t suppose it matters that they may be released early, does it?)

Do we really have to have everything out in the open. Do politicians’ tax returns need to be published?

One thing is for sure, if the tories win the apology game (today the Royal College of Nursing, tomorrow youtube, Wednesday Eastenders – provided its shown on a Wednesday, I don’t know, who cares) and the next General Election, they are still not “pure“, as Michael White in his Guardian blog noted, and the expenses system will still have to change.

As Jeremy Seabrook noted in a recent article,”You don’t have to agree with the British National party to see the legitimacy of its claim to represent those written off by Labour”. Something that “those written off by Labour”, by whom he means the white working class, should not expect to draw great influence from is the class differences in those things MP’s have made expenses claims on. As good as fraudualent claims have been made by both Labour and tory. But if I could for a moment point out that the excessive uses of taxpayer money to pay mortgages on houses that would be sold months after was a tactic used more by tories than Labour MP’s. Some Labour MP’s expenses crimes were rather more trivial than offensive; tampons, porn and 2 toilet seats.

Not to mention that among the lowest claimants were both Labour MP’s and sons of leading socialists; Ed Miliband whose Father was the left wing academic Ralph Miliband, author of The State in a Capitalist Society, and Hilary Benn whose Father needs no introduction. Its class War!

But apologies aside, the situation has escalated calls by many for Brown to either start a new popular war or the more realistic call of leadership change if (or, again realistically, when) the European elections nosedive for Labour. Nowhere has this latter message been more cutting than in Polly Toynbee’s comment today in the Guardian calling for Alan Johnson to take leadership unopposed.

In her knife wielding diatribe she told the world;

“It’s all over for Brown and Labour. The abyss awaits.”

and that

“He may be the best-read prime minister in decades, but his learning seems to hamper instead of illuminate his path […] But then the decisions he takes are too often tactical, not purposeful or strategic. Trident, the third runway or post office privatisation are mere positioning in some illusory business-pleasing ploy, their long-term damage far outweighing one day’s headlines.”

But then there will be those faithful’s that come out in support of pre-election unity, and one of those voices will be the ever grateful Peter Mandelson, who in a recent article, also from the Guardian, asked the electorate to concentrate more on imaganing for a moment how a tory government would have handled the events of the last year.

He elaborates;

“Northern Rock would have been allowed to fail, regardless of the potential costs in lost deposits and financial panic.

There would have been no fiscal stimulus. No VAT cut to generate £8bn-£9bn in retail sales that would not otherwise have occurred. No frontloaded government capital spending to boost construction. No lift for hard-hit car manufacturers. And as for the G20, David Cameron can hardly bear to go near Europe, let alone find his way in the rest of the world.

Instead, a Tory government would have stood aside, seeing the recession, as some shadow ministers have admitted in unguarded moments, as something that must just be allowed to take its course.”

To add to the list of clear advantages Brown’s government has acheived is the new proposals of locally usable criminal assets, allowing local communities to use £4million of criminal assets to pay for local projects.

Also the new deal with China’s stock exchange will help secure some political weight on an international level, but this could all become deadweight if the 4th of June sends a scathing message.

Will Polly Tyonbee be proved right about leadership change on the 5th of June, who will come to Brown’s support and who will come out yelling. Watch this space.

What dirt will £300,000 buy you?

My local MP Angela Smith said in todays Basildon Recorder that Gordon was the man to save the economy (the same edition that regretfully informed inhabitants of Essex that the BNP is fielding candidates in all 75 Essex wards next month).  But Brown’s efforts may well be for nothing if he doesn’t inject the country with some reasons to trust his party.

The information leaked today concerned expenses. The telegraph bought the stolen disk containing MP’s expenses, which was being dangled in front of the media’s noses at a high price.

The disk showed details of Gordon Brown paying his brother Andrew £6,000 for cleaning his Westminster flat, but Brown, although seen to be defending the allowances system,  admits the system must be changed.

The disk also reported;

Justice Secretary Jack Straw claiming his full council tax despite receiving a 50% discount from his local authority, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown claiming for the same plumbing bill twice within six months.

As the Guardian reported;

“Labour MP Sir Stuart Bell, a member of the commission, said the information was being offered to national newspapers for up to £300,000 in March and that a hunt had been launched to find the mole.

Bell said: “All of the receipts of 650-odd MPs, redacted [edited] and unredacted, are for sale at a price of £300,000, so I am told.

“The price is going up because of the interest in the subject.”

Peter Mandelson, who by this has been accused of “defrauding” the taxpayer, on the back foot tried to claw away difficult questions by asking what kind of questions the public will be asking about the tories’ expenses. But this is not a game of well they did it, Mandy!

The police have been called to investigate and find the mole who stole and sold the information, while some see this as a grave error, and have come out in defence of the telegraph for purchasing stolen goods, arguing that it was in the public’s best interest (see link above telegraph bought…).

The police will not be unfamiliar with high-cost purchases of dodgy information, reports have just been fed through that police paid informants £750,000 in four years for information on Plane Stupid!, the bubblegum protest group who seem to encapsulate everything older people hate about teenagers; hubris, close contacts, disposable money (not income), and media attention.

I’m sure more on this will emerge by Monday, providing it is not obfuscated by ten more scandals and leaks.