They’re all ‘independent’ now – but from what?
In response to the expenses scandal, even the PM wants to stand on his personal conscience rather than political principles. But we still need politics.
As the expenseszzz scandal drags on, the cry goes up for more ‘independents’ to stand for election as MPs, with TV celebrities and journalists putting themselves forward as possible candidates. Sounds good to many, even if there are, er, question marks about some of the individuals concerned.
But the bigger question is, ‘independent’ from what? From the political party machines and parliamentary whips, certainly. But more than that, these candidates will be ‘independent’ from politics altogether, in the sense of having any programme for running society. Instead they will ask to be judged as individuals, on the basis of their personal ethics rather than political outlook, their conscience rather than their convictions.
No doubt some will hope to look less like aspiring politicians than candidates for a sort of secular priesthood – the inevitable outcome, perhaps, of an expenses scandal that has now led Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic to make the bizarre claim that MPs fiddling their gardening expenses or mortgage interest payments have ‘fallen from grace’. When did running the state ever have anything to do with being in a state of grace?
In response, those few existing MPs who have dared to defend their profession have tried to suggest that Esther Rantzen or the bloke from Dollar might not be best equipped to deal with the gravest capitalist crisis for a generation. What, for example, are their policies on public spending or the war in Afghanistan? This is a fair point. It could also be pointed out that, while the election of independent anti-sleaze/single-issue MPs such as Martin Bell in recent elections marked a symbolic victory over the old parties, once elected they have disappeared into the bowels of Westminster. They might as well have lost for all the difference they made to the country.
However, that response from MPs fails to recognise how far the political rot has gone. After all, the same points could be made about them. What politics have New Labour or Conservative MPs really got to stand on today? Which of them now is really going to offer themselves to the electorate as a party loyalist? In that sense, perhaps the candidates will all be ‘independents’ at the next election, standing on no more than their expenses sheets or promises to be purer than the old gang. The new code of conduct for MPs proposed by prime minister Gordon Brown will help to ratify that status. It appears that politicians will from now on be accountable primarily for their personal expense accounts, rather than called to account for what they say and do in the world outside the Commons claims office.
Indeed, it would even seem that Brown now wants to cast himself as an ‘independent’ prime minister who has nothing to do with the corrupt old system of parliamentary politics. He claimed at the weekend that he was the only man to clean up British politics, not because of New Labour’s policies, but because of his personal ‘Presbyterian conscience’. (No doubt that was also what led Brown to announce to the media that he had phoned Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan to check on the mental health of fellow Scottish Presbyterian and talent show runner-up Susan Boyle.) So Brown is playing the grey card, pitching himself as the dull but moral warden who can sweep out the church. It is a remarkable testament to the bankruptcy of New Labour that our independent prime minister now seeks to wash his hands of the system that he has helped to preside over for 12 years.
Let’s face it, there are far more important things that politicians should be called to account for – such as their policies on economic crisis, war or liberty – and made to explain – such as their vision for the good society. Skewering them over their risible or rip-off expenses claims might be entertaining, but in a more profound sense it also lets them off hook – and fails to raise important questions about what comes next.
No, we may not need the old political parties or political class. But we do need politics, and much more of it – political ideas and principles that can contest a fight for the future. I do not support any of the existing parties – or, for that matter, any of the new ones to emerge so far. But I do recall why political parties were formed in the first place: to represent distinctive interests, classes and movements in society, standing on manifestoes that meant something to people.
Today we have the empty shells of parties without politics, which have become little more than closed, self-serving patronage and PR machines. We would be better off without them. But to shape the future we are still going to need organised politics of some form, with people standing for collective interests, rather than ragbags of worthy but pointless wandering independents. The (unlikely) prospect of a society governed under such an arrangement calls to mind the dismissive phrase ‘It looks like it was designed by a committee…’
Brown says he wants to see ‘democratic renewal’, and we can surely all endorse that aspiration – if not the idea that it could be instigated by his appointed National Council of Democratic Renewal. Democracy must mean more than institutional reform. It has to involve real political choices about the future – and those choices are noticeable by their absence from democracy today. This week’s European elections in the UK might be staged under a more proportional voting system than normal parliamentary elections, but that does not mean we are being offered any more genuine choices by those contesting the polls. The calls for an immediate General Election are understandable, and I am always in favour of more frequent elections to hold the government to account, but what would it solve in these circumstances?
There is a good case for considering all manner of constitutional reforms to improve democracy, from the abolition of the monarchy to fixed parliaments and proportional representation. But as Frank Furedi argued on spiked last week, in the end there can be no organisational solution to what is at root a political crisis (see Taking refuge in the rhetoric of reform). Britain surely needs parties and leaders who will stand for something, rather than simply promising to rearrange the chairs.
So by all means get shot of those redundant old parties that are effectively declaring themselves bankrupt anyway. But we will need something more to put in their place than trainee priests, Presbyterian consciences, and others who put themselves forward as ‘independent’ of any political ideas at all.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Taking refuge in the rhetoric of reform, by Frank Furedi
The question is: trust you to do what?, by Tim Black
Beware the vultures circling the Commons, by Brendan O’Neill
Paying politicians is good for democracy, by Tim Black
MPs’ expenses: what price democracy?, by Mick Hume
Read more at spiked issue MPs’ expenses.