Symptom of democratic deficit

For recallable MPs on a worker's wage, writes Jim Moody

Amid hopes that it was all going to go away by now, the scandal of their expenses scams continues. In the latest development, three Labour MPs and a Tory lord are facing criminal prosecution.

Last week, MPs David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley and a member of the House of Lords, Paul White (alias Lord Hanningfield), were each charged under section 17 of the Theft Act on several counts relating to false accounting in their parliamentary expenses. The maximum sentence if found guilty is seven years in prison.

On February 8, after the disreputable Commons trio moved to exculpate themselves by claiming parliamentary immunity from these criminal charges, the Labour Party formally suspended them from membership and withdrew the whip. They were already barred from standing again as Labour candidates last year. It looks likely that the latest Labour leadership move was a response to Tory badgering.

This is against the background of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee report issued last week containing Sir Thomas Legg’s Additional Costs Allowance Review. This called for over half the membership of the House of Commons, 392 MPs in all, to pay back more than a million pounds in total. Legg recommended that just over £1.3 million should be repaid by MPs, but in the end appeals heard by Sir Paul Kennedy reduced this to £1.12 million. In concluding his review Legg notes: “The total cost of this review from its commencement to the submission of this report has been approximately £1.16 million.”

Clearly, Legg’s review was not cost-effective. But then, it was really only intended to serve a political purpose: mollifying enraged public opinion. From comments most readers will have heard, public flogging would be too good.

In fact, this recent review has been carried out in a Westminster bubble, as if the merry parliamentary moneymaking engaged in by a high proportion of MPs was no business of those who voted them in. Merely three MPs are to be tried; the 389 others were deemed to have ‘overclaimed within the rules’. They were milking a system under which members were encouraged to claim (in confidence) for all manner of expenses as a substitute for salary hikes that would have outraged voters.

And if George Galloway is anything to go by, there is a long way to go before even those who consider themselves socialist are at all convinced of the need for elected representatives to be just that - representatives: in other words, they should not be treated as worthier than or superior to their constituents and rewarded accordingly. The Respect MP, speaking on BBC1’s Question time on February 4, suggested that there should be far fewer, but more highly paid MPs. Apparently, their quality would thereby magically improve.

Galloway, of course, rejects any suggestion that MPs should receive only the average wage of a skilled worker. He happily trousers the £64,766 currently dished out, but thinks it is insufficient. But representation ought not to be regarded as a well remunerated career choice, with an enhanced income that distances an MP from electors and which no-one will want to take up unless their special talents are suitably recognised. It ought to be regarded as the highest honour to be called upon to serve one’s constituents.

This is a deeply democratic question. From the time of the Paris Commune, over 100 years ago, working class organisations have demanded that elected representatives be paid no more than a skilled worker’s wage, and that they should be recallable. Why? Not because they should live in poverty, but because those representing working class voters in particular need to be reminded continually how their constituents live and what their interests are.

The same principle applies to trade union representatives, but the problem is, both parliamentarians and union officials have come to expect greater comfort and relative enrichment as their due. Having got where they are on the backs of their supporters, they often consider they have ‘made it’. Incomes and expenses commensurate with managers and small-scale owners of capital are a corrosive and corrupting influence. Working class MPs and union bureaucrats start to see themselves as above and beyond those who elected them.

So what is needed? Well, it is surely not simply policing MPs’ expenses claims more thoroughly. Nor is it just a question of how MPs are paid, but the entire democratic deficit inherent in the constitutional monarchy system, of which the furore over MPs’ expenses is just a symptom.

First, there should be a unicameral parliament. The House of Lords must go and no replacement ‘upper house’ countenanced: such chambers function as a check and balance against democratic pressure from the people. We want no monarch, but a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales.

Second, parliaments must be elected annually. This would put a stop to the ability of the government to set the election date according to party political advantage and enable us to call MPs to account more easily. Even so, MPs must be subject to recall at any time.

Third, as stated above, MPs’ salaries must be equivalent to the wage of a skilled worker. In the meantime, communist and socialist candidates must pledge to take only this amount, plus legitimate expenses, if elected, with the excess surrendered to the party.

These, no doubt among other democratic demands, should be uncontentious among the left and are feasible even under capitalism. The fact that the bourgeoisie will never propose such demands itself gives the lie to the idea, sometimes current within a lazy-minded left, that the ‘natural’ capitalist form of government is ‘bourgeois democracy’. Every democratic initiative has come from mass action, every democratic right has been granted in the teeth of capitalist opposition and can never be regarded as permanent.