British democracy the stench of corruption

It is a truth acknowledged by working class people all over the world that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Three weeks of daily exposure of the corruption of the British Parliament by the Daily Telegraph newspaper has driven home the point. So far the Telegraph has examined the expense accounts of fewer than half of the current 646 Members of Parliament. As we go to press, ten of the worst offenders have announced that they will not stand at the next election. Many more will face the wrath of their constituents and are trembling in their (hand-made) boots at what is to come. The European elections are imminent and a general election is looming.

As you would expect of this Mother of all Parliaments, buried up to its neck in capitalist exploitation, imperialist plunder and priding itself on purveying democracy and self-righteousness, the British Parliament has always been a den of thieves, iniquity and corruption. From the rotten boroughs of the 18th and 19th centuries to the rotten parties of the 20th and 21st, the MPs have nodded through an extraordinary list of vicious measures to torment the working class and poor and to reward the rich and privileged.

Feathering nests
There are 646 MPs (2005 general election) who are paid £64,766 a year. Despite the fact that this is around three times the average wage, most MPs don’t think it is enough. In December 2006, before corporate greed became unpopular, backbench MPs were demanding a salary of £100,000 ‘in line with GPs and council executives’. On top of their salaries, all MPs can feather their nests with expenses: staffing allowance £100,205; incidental expenses £22,193; communications allowance £10,400 and several more. With the exception of MPs for inner London constituencies, they are also allowed to claim £24,006 a year tax-free ‘additional allowances’ for second homes, and it is the operation of these expenses as a slush fund that has caused the scandal.

The Green Book, which stipulates how these expenses are to be claimed, warns: ‘claims should be above reproach and must reflect actual usage of the resources being claimed’. Furthermore, ‘the requirement of ensuring value for money is central in claiming for accommodation, goods or services – members should avoid purchases which could be seen as extravagant or luxurious.’ Clearly it is called a Green Book rather than a rule book because, in fact, there are no rules. Up to now the details of the expenses have been secret and Parliament has devoted time to trying to avoid publication. But the cat is now out of the bag.

As has become clear from the Telegraph’s revelations, the claims range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Many MPs have used this ‘allowance’ to gentrify their homes and embark on property speculation costing the taxpayer thousands of pounds. The extraordinary claims of Tory grandees fall into a particular category: restoring the moat (Hogg, Sleaford); building the servants’ quarters (Butterfill, Bournmouth West); gardening fees and a duck island (Viggers, Gosport). Labour’s John Prescott (Hull) reclad his home in mock Tudor timbers and Margaret Moran (Luton) notoriously repaired the dry rot (£22,000) in her partner’s home, 100 miles from her constituency.

Some MPs have cleverly made ‘flipping’ an art form: swapping the designations of their homes from ‘main’ to ‘second’ in order to double their money. Star prize goes to Conservatives Andrew Mackay and his wife, Julie Kirkbride, who separately designated their main home and constituency homes differently to reap extra rewards. Both are standing down at the next election. Others have made fortunes selling their newly-improved properties, and then started again.

Luckily for the MPs who are being forced to stand down, if they manage to hang on until the next election their efforts will be rewarded by further tax free allowances, worth tens of thousands of pounds, for ‘winding up’ and ‘resettling’, so that their return to ‘normal’ life is as untraumatic as possible.

In an analysis of MPs’ previous occupations at the 2005 election, 242 MPs came from professional backgrounds (72 barristers/solicitors; 44 university lecturers) and 118 from business backgrounds. 75% were university graduates (25% from Oxford and Cambridge). Only 38 of the total had been manual workers. The vast majority of MPs are middle class and schooled from birth to calculate every asset minutely. Yet an extraordinary number claimed to have ‘made a mistake’ by claiming for mortgage interest on mortgages they did not have, for properties they did not occupy and for expenditure they did not make. Much of this is undoubtedly fraud for which, unlike their working class counterparts who ‘make mistakes’, they are unlikely to go to prison.

The revelations are just the tip of the iceberg. This greedy lot are not satisfied with a large income and practically unaudited expenses, many of them also have second jobs, paid directorships and shareholdings. MPs think, like bankers, that they work harder than other people and therefore deserve vastly inflated pay packets. The reality is that their holidays are long and working days short. Proof of this is that many MPs have second jobs, continue practising as barristers, solicitors, doctors and dentists, or act as company directors. In 2007, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague sat on two boards, earned up to £100,000 as a consultant for three further companies, earned £120,000 as an after dinner speaker and made up to £245,000 in advances for a book. It is not only the Tories who make extra money this way: David Blunkett listed more than £150,000 ‘other remuneration’ and Charles Clarke three consultancies and up to £50,000 worth of other ventures in the Register of Members’ Interests.

Readers should not imagine that this luxurious living is confined to the House of Commons. The Lords do not receive a salary, but do get attendance allowances. Anyone in receipt of unemployment or other state benefits, calculated on what a person needs to survive, should take note. Overnight accommodation allowance: £174.00; day subsistence: £86.50; office costs: £75.00 – all tax free. Most of the Lords have pensions, directorships and other sources of income. Understandably the MPs threatened with eviction from the Commons are queueing up to be considered for peerages.
When the Commons MPs were looking for a scapegoat for the scandal they fortunately happened upon the Speaker, Michael Martin, who notionally controlled the oversight of the expenses, persistently blocked any reform of the system and more importantly, perhaps, was originally from the Glasgow working class. For the first time in more than 300 years a Speaker was forced to resign. Normally the Speaker is automatically elevated to the House of Lords but, ironically, a cabal of ex-Thatcherite ministers led by Lords Lawson and Lamont have decided that Martin does not come up to scratch even in a pit of dubious sleaze-ridden peers.

‘It’s the economy, stupid’
These are extraordinary times. Waging war on Iraq, justified on the basis of a tissue of lies, detention without trial and torture of opponents, systematic inroads into civil rights, have barely caused a ripple among the present cohort of MPs and the electorate. It has been clear for years that MPs have been rewarding themselves with high salaries and pensions, supposedly in line with other fat cats who benefited from the years of debt-stoked economic boom. What has changed? Why is there now such a furore?

With the onset of the current deep capitalist crisis in 2008, the bankers faced public opprobrium and shareholder rage over the bonus systems which rewarded incompetence and greed. When things seemed to be going well, nobody cared. These men were the entrepreneurs, the money-spinners, the good guys. But now that the system has crashed, while Sir Fred Goodwin of RBS bank and the departing director of BT’s IT operation, Francois Barrault, to name but two, have been able to walk away with millions, the MPs are more vulnerable. What is more, the next Parliament will have the job of ensuring that not only the working class but also large sections of the middle class pay for this crisis. To do so, Parliament will have to appear to be above reproach.

The sudden, unprecedented interest in parliamentary reform among leading Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians stems from this alone. All of them knew about the expenses fraud, most of them personally participated. They have only started to criticise parliamentary procedures because they want to continue to rule in the interests of their class. Their wealth and privileges depend on the survival of British imperialism. If it is necessary to sacrifice the careers of a few (or even many) backbenchers, or sack their most favoured advisers, they will do it. If it is necessary to talk about the constitution, proportional representation, fixed-length parliaments, more devolution, it will be done. Just don’t be deluded into thinking this has anything to do with real democracy.

One of the conditions for a revolutionary period has been met: the ruling class cannot go on ruling in the old way. Desperately it has to find a new means to maintain its rule. What is required to stop them is not constitutional reform but a working class movement determined to oppose imperialism and seize control for itself and its allies.

Carol Brickley

FRFI 209 June / July 2009


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