Miller’s gone but expenses are still toxic. What’s Labour’s plan?

by Atul Hatwal

So Maria Miller has resigned and Sajid Javid has replaced her, meh. Contrary to some of the over-heated reports, Miller’s particular passing will have little lasting impact.

True, there’s one less woman in the cabinet, but Javid is from a minority community, an area where the Tories and Liberals are even less representative of Britain – let’s not forget that while there were previously 4 women in the full cabinet of 22 Ministers, there was no-one from a minority community.

The circus will soon  move on and there will be another crisis over which politicians and media can hyper-ventilate.

However, while Maria Miller’s political demise is ultimately unremarkable, there is a legacy from the affair; one that will persist regardless of whether she had stayed, resigned, or did the hokey-cokey daily on College Green.

The expenses issue is back as a fixture in British politics.

It won’t be as toxic as in 2009 (how could it be?), but as Andrew Lansley suggested on Newsnight last night, there are likely to be other Miller-type transgressions which come to light, that predate the new expenses regime.

And just as with Miller, each time the parliamentary standards committee (which is dominated by MPs) waters down or even changes the punctuation in a ruling by the parliamentary standards commissioner, the same battle-lines pitching media against politicians will be drawn.

The press will be in full cry and the most resonant soundbite to emerge in the past week will be repeatedly trotted out: “politicians should not be allowed to mark their own homework.”

The outrage of the fourth estate is understandable: a variant on this line was central to defining the public’s perception of the Leveson debate. In that case, it was the media who were not to be allowed to mark their own homework. 

Then, as now on expenses, the line also happens to be true.

Self-regulation doesn’t work. The experience across financial services, politics, media and schools everywhere is quite clear: teacher needs to mark the homework.

So politicians from all parties face a quandry.

The system on expenses is, once again, broken The parliamentary standards committee, which over-ruled the standards commissioner, has been de facto neutered.

Either MPs accept that the word of Kathryn Hudson, the current standards commissioner, is now law, and there is no recourse to appeal or higher authority to hold her decisions accountable, or a new plan for expenses is required.

The most obvious, and in the short term tempting, option for party leaders, is to pretend nothing has changed. The parliamentary standards committee might now be on a slippery slope to irrelevance, but redrawing the rules on expenses would be tortuous and breed dissent across the front and back benches of all parties.

However, as painful as revisting the rules would be, two factors suggest this is inevitable.

First, the drip drip of further expenses stories, potentially contested by the standards committee before being over-turned by the media, would further undermine trust in politicians and fuel the anti-politics surge of UKIP.

Second, MPs will chafe and ultimately revolt at the rulings of an unaccountable parliamentary commissioner.

This latter point has been egregiously under-reported in the media. While several MPs on the Conservative side came to the conclusion that Maria Miller had to resign, the overwhelming majority were very sympathetic to her cause.

As John Rentoul has ably set out, her case on the disputed expenses was not without merit, and the near universal view of MPs was that the commissioner’s judgement was not only wrong in fact but extreme in its punishment.

To be subject to the irreversible, unaccountable whims of such a cavalier authority – which is how many MPs perceive the commissioner – is unsustainable. It might take a few more decisions against MPs from the commissioner, but given the residual hatred for IPSA among MPs, in the end they will unite across party lines in rebellion and there will be a crisis.

David Cameron now finds himself playing the role of Gordon Brown in 2009 – presiding over a fractious party where the eruptions on expenses are an unwelcome distraction from the business of getting the government’s message out to the electorate.

Cameron’s instinct today as Brown’s was then, is that least said, soonest mended. He will want to do as little as possible and hope that it all goes away, or at least that the crisis is delayed until after the next election.

Ed Miliband is in the role of the young David Cameron from 2009. As with Cameron then, he could seize the initiative and use this to attack the government.

In 2009, after some initial hesitation, Cameron skillfully re-positioned himself as on the side of the people, pushing for reform and leaving Brown seeming flat-footed.

Ed Miliband has had his moment of hesitation. Last week it took Labour 24 hours to put out a statement in response to the Miller apology. Since then, we’ve not heard a thing about what Labour’s alternative plan on expenses.

Now Labour’s leader needs to act.

It’s true his MPs are reluctant with little appetite to engage in a process of change that will likely lead to an even tighter expenses regime. But this is the time for political leadership.

If Ed Miliband could present a credible alternative to the current discredited system, he would not only tap into the widespread anti-politics sentiment – as Cameron did in 2009 – but practically demonstrate his leaderly credentials, addressing one of his biggest negatives in the eyes of the public.

Forcing David Cameron to consider his proposals, to debate Labour’s alternative while the government scrabbled around defending the status quo, would be a powerful illustration of Ed Miliband’s personal narrative on being a leader for the many rather than the privileged few.

As in 2009 though, the window of opportunity for the opposition will not remain open indefinitely. Ed Miliband needs to seize his chance. But to do that, he needs to answer the question the party has resolutely has avoided for the past week.

What’s Labour’s plan on expenses?

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

Tags: , , , ,

8 Responses to “Miller’s gone but expenses are still toxic. What’s Labour’s plan?”

  1. bob says:

    Plan, there is no plan.

  2. swatantra says:

    Bring back to totally Independent Standards Board, which this Coalition abolished.

  3. Tafia says:

    All expenses claimed must be published in the public domain – how much, what for, who by.

    And something still seriously needs to be done about second homes. The only workable answer is a secure campus somewhere in Greater London for any MPs from outside the M25 circle containing fully furnished and equipped serviced apartments, offices, catering/recreation facilities and shuttle transport to and from Westminster. Allocated civil service office staff. That way the need for second homes and their furnishing , repairs and upkeep is totally eliminated. They will have somewhere secure to work in, live in and socialise in and staffed.

    Travel rates back to their constituencies should be at the MMA rates paid to the Armed Forces & rail travel at second class rates.

    Back in their constituency they should be allocated office space at a government building and again staffed by the civil service. (this ends the practice of employing friends and family in dubious positions on grossly inflated wages). If they choose not to live in their constituency that is their choice not our expense – they receive no housing payments.

    ALL receipts to be submitted – every single one of them. No receipt, no claim.

    And if they don’t like it they are free to get a real job in the real world and live by the same rules as the rest of us.

    They are not doing us a favour and we owe them nothing. They are not special, most serve little purpose other than as lobby-fodder and they are easily replaceable

  4. Tafia says:

    Huffington Post:-

    Do you need help choosing which party to vote for? Well, Bill Bailey is here to help, having summed up the state of British politics perfectly.

    Speaking eruditely at a work-in-progress show, Bill Bailey Unplugged, the British comedian discussed his views on the major three parties, along with Ukip.
    Predicting the results of the general election in 2015, The Times newspaper quoted Bailey as saying the only trace of the Liberal Democrats will be “a bunch of flowers taped to some railings.”

    David Cameron, on the other hand, was poetically described as a “congealed, laminated weasel.”

    Ukip, he argued, are a troupe of “sozzled berks” whose only policies include an electrified fence at Dover and “no women in the bar area.”

    Ed Miliband was rather tragically described as being “like a plastic bag caught in a tree.”

    “No one knows how he got up there and no one can be bothered to get him down.”

    Bailey, who appeared in one of Labour’s 2010 general election broadcasts, has already admitted he has grown frustrated with the Labour Party.

    “I find them increasingly frustrating because there seems to be a lack of direction,” he said in January.

    “I’ve always been a Labour supporter, but ordinary working people are not being represented in the way that they used to.”

    “People look at all the parties and see similarities,” he concluded.

    Cameron, meanwhile, will urge voters to shun Ukip “extremists” in the European elections Thursday, as he tries to draw a line under the Maria Miller furore today.
    Launching the Tories’ campaign for next month’s poll, the Prime Minister is to argue that his is the only party focused on Britain’s national interest rather than political dogma.

  5. Who are these “lay” members of the Parliamentary Committee on Standards? I bet that they are a lot less “lay” than many MPs are, and an awful lot less “lay” than most voters are. It is parliamentarians who are there because they are lay, just as magistrates and jurors are.

    Yet there is now a proposal that these great and good be given voting rights. As much as anything else, that would mean that the Committee’s proceedings could no longer be covered by parliamentary privilege. Don’t the people making this proposal know that? Evidently not.

    None of the above would need to be explained at all if Tony Benn were not dead, Michael Foot were not dead, Leo Abse were not dead, Enoch Powell were not long dead, Tam Dalyell were not retired, or Sir Peter Tapsell were not about to retire. All eyes are now on Sir Richard Shepherd. Whether any ears will be upon him is, alas, a different question.

    Like recall elections, the expense of which ought in each case to be borne by whoever organised the petition to bring it about, the equally illiterate call for voting “lay” members of the Standards Committee, or even for these matters to be taken out of the hands of MPs altogether, is of a piece with the cession of properly parliamentary power to the Executive and to the Judiciary, to media moguls and to money markets, and to the Government’s staff rather than to elected politicians. A very similar, and not unconnected, trend is also evident in local government.

    Where else is going to be given these voting “lay” members from among self-selecting specialists with heavy vested interests? Select Committees? Standing Committees? The House itself? That is the very last thing that we need.

    Moreover, it would constitute an abrogation of our own responsibilities. If we want better MPs, then we ought to require ourselves to vote for them.

  6. Robert says:

    I am not convinced that we need to change the rules because one politician has resigned. MPs just need to follow the current rules!

  7. Tafia says:

    MPs just need to follow the current rules!

    And pigs might fly.

  8. uglyfatbloke says:

    We can be confident that the plan won’t include prosecution for all those current and former MPs who paid back money after they’d been caught stealing it.

Leave a Reply