Scams, yoghurts and loopholes

James Turley explains that taking a worker's wage is not a moral commitment, but a thoroughly political one

It has been simmering for long enough, and now it has exploded. The question of MPs’ expenses, which has surfaced periodically over the years, has reached a new level since the leak to The Daily Telegraph of the detailed claims of all MPs.

On top of a not inconsiderable basic salary of £64,766, MPs are entitled to a raft of expenses. Chief among these is the second home allowance - MPs for constituencies outside London are entitled to claim money in order to maintain a second household in the capital for parliamentary business. Not disastrously unreasonable, on the face of it ... but it has become public knowledge in the past that ‘outside London’ included such remote provincial outposts as Watford.

And now we have before us the full picture of how much money can be squeezed out of the second home allowance. For example, Margaret Moran, a Labour MP, claimed for repairs to her Southampton home - all very well, except her constituency is in Luton, and the purpose of the Southampton outpost is to have a pad closer to her partner’s place of work.

Additionally, the rules do not designate exactly which of your homes - constituency or London - counts as the second. This allows MPs to claim for mundane renovation works on their first homes, but more prominently, also allows them to switch which home they are claiming for with a few days’ notice - a practice that has now become known as ‘flipping’. MPs do not have to pay stamp duty on their second home, and a gaping loophole allows them to avoid paying capital gains tax on either of their homes.

At the other end of the scale, MPs are given broad licence to claim for the most banal trivia. Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland secretary, has the dubious honour of having claimed 38p for a Muller Crunch Corner yoghurt. It is perhaps unsurprising that a most infamous opportunist should win the wooden spoon for pettiest use of the tax purse - Woodward crossed the floor from the Tories to Labour in 1999 (but his history is more chequered still: at Cambridge University, he had been under the influence of Marxist professors, studying under Stephen Heath and active in the campaign in defence of Colin MacCabe, who was effectively fired for conciliation to Continental intellectual fashions on a broadly Althusserian basis).

What has been made clear in the last week is precisely what a lash-up bourgeois politics really is. Without distinction of party, all-comers have been revealed as most adept players of the system; it is clear that this substantial supplement to a generous salary (anyone could be forgiven for thinking £64,776 a pittance!) has simply become taken for granted. It is clear, furthermore, that young, new MPs are integrated into the systematic corruption remarkably quickly. The response from politicians has resembled that of a child who has been caught doing something wrong, but is nevertheless entirely surprised.

One would expect, all things considered, the scorn to fall on all major parties equally. Indeed, David Cameron has been relatively reticent in taking pot-shots at the government, fully aware of his own vulnerability on this score. Yet the Tory leader has been remarkably astute in making the best of a bad situation.

Outside the context of Brown-bashing, he has been ruthlessly efficient in making political capital out of the confusion. He condemned his own front bench MPs for extravagant claims; more impressively, he appears to have moderated his own reliance on the public purse upon assuming the Tory leadership in 2005 - a most remarkable case of foresight for a legendarily opportunistic politician (The Guardian May 12). Most spectacularly of all, he has demanded that leading Tory MPs give up their perks and pay back the money.

By contrast, Labour seems utterly directionless. Brown has apologised on the behalf of the entire political class, but made no serious attempt to rival Cameron’s pursuit of ‘reparations’. The speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, is a long-standing Labourite (though tradition demands he puts his party affiliation to one side). He has become emblematic of Labour’s confusion over the issue: at the critical Commons debate, he devolved into incoherent ranting, accusing Labour dissident Kate Hoey of simply feeding “quotes to the press” after she questioned the wisdom of calling the police in to investigate the leak. He made similar allegations against the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker. Douglas Carswell, a Tory who has been more critical of the speaker than his party at large, is now engaged in tabling a motion of no confidence ... and who can blame him?

It should be emphasised that this is not an index of the moral superiority of the Tories as against Labour. All are waist-deep in muck. It does tell us something about the dynamism of a Conservative Party on a high, despite a basically and obviously shallow leadership, as against an ideologically bereft Labour government in decay. Brown is increasingly seen as a deadweight - where Cameron has reacted swiftly and effectively to the public outcry, the prime minister has seemed at every moment a step behind. It is not insignificant that Polly Toynbee, a social democrat who urged us all to get behind Gordon through the Blair years, now openly calls for an internal coup to replace him with health secretary Alan Johnson (The Guardian May 12).

Beyond the immediate questions of party politics, the expenses scandal is merely an eye-opener. It seems, to the politicians, perfectly natural to screw the taxpayer for yoghurts - and, on one level, it is. Bourgeois politics operates on a career structure. Politics is reduced to a job, and elected officials to functionaries.

Why should they not attempt to screw every last penny to which they are entitled? What would anyone else do in the same position? Given the basically insignificant political differences between the major parties at this time, the essentially venal character of the political system is not only foregrounded; it is revealed as the entire character of its functioning. The question is not whether you are on the gravy train, but how much gravy you are getting out of it.

There is a more fundamental question here. Bourgeois politicians are not directly beholden to any particular constituency. The system is not designed to produce iron discipline among all its participants, but workable political outcomes in the broader picture. While bourgeois parties do enforce a limited degree of discipline on their representatives, the latter are loyal on a more fundamental level to capitalism, to its preservation and its strength. The expenses gravy train is precisely a way of ensuring loyalty - both as a compelling career aim for the politicians of the future, and as an ongoing reward for those of the present. What presents itself to the general population as a competition between political strategies is in reality a competition for sponsorship from above, in which a second home at the expense of Joe Taxpayer constitutes one element of the reward.

The priority of communists is quite different. For us, parliamentary politics is not a carefully designed game, but a twofold opportunity: to expose our enemies and propagate our programme. The exposition of our enemies is not rocket science - but the matter of positive propaganda poses more subtle problems. The programme is embodied in the party; for parliamentary representatives to be reliably subordinated to the programme requires them to be subordinated to the party.

For this reason, communists commit ourselves unconditionally to the principle of a worker’s wage for a workers’ representative - a principle which should be imposed on representatives of bourgeois parties too. We are unswayed by the arguments of the likes of George Galloway, to the effect that public political activism incurs significant costs. There certainly are legitimate expenses to be incurred over and above the £22,000-odd a skilled worker’s wage amounts to - but if these funds are not in the possession of the party, the MP (or councillor, MEP, etc) will begin to act as a free agent rather than the servant of the working class. (Certainly, Marxists have no problem in screwing the system for all it is worth - provided that the resultant funds go to the movement rather than the individual pockets of representatives.)

The Galloways of this world, no doubt, commit the bulk of their funds to advocacy of progressive causes - or at least causes that they believe to be progressive. But in operating outside of party discipline, they operate outside of the mechanisms the working class has to hold its representatives to account. Galloway here converges on the position of every rightwing social democrat, who invariably refuse any party discipline to their left in the name of some higher moral calling - usually the ‘millions out there’ who do not trouble themselves with the internal politics of the workers’ parties.

Communists refuse such hypocrisy, and we scorn the crass attempts of the bourgeois establishment to buy us off and integrate us into its political machine. The worker’s wage is not a moral commitment, but a thoroughly political one - it touches on the very vision of politics we propose, and hints at a way out of the one we are saddled with. That bourgeois politicians are as corrupt as the class they defend should surprise no-one.