Commentary and opinion on national and regional politics by Seema Malhotra

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Labour needs to be more confident on the expenses crisis

There is no doubt that the expenses issue is a constitutional crisis, the likes of which I do not think we have seen in our time, not may see for another generation. In 100 years time, what we are going through will be the a key topic I am sure in many a GCSE student's history and politics class. It is hugely serious, and enormously sad. I for one feel enormously let down by politicians across all parties who have clearly done the "unforgiveable" - simply because they could.Perhaps it is the final trigger that will bring the parliamentary expenses system into the 21st century.

I have never understood why expenses whether for Westminster or Europe were so loosely defined. Perhaps this comes from having had a career in the private sector, where my expenses have always had to be backed up by receipts, scrutiny was clear, and accountability was clear. As well as the finance teams monitoring expenditure and rules, so did the business you were in. For projects I have run, I had to estimate project expenses and be accountable to the business for costs incurred. Accountability, and clarity of accountability is a jolly good thing.

The crisis we are currently going through has been exacerbated I believe by Labour's reluctance to get on the front foot. I knew from talking to journalists a year ago that this was the issue political journalists were going to hold on to like a dog to a bone. It was never going to go away. The end result we were going to arrive at, by hook or by crook, was transparency of the expenses. There is no doubt this fervour by the media would have been fed by inside information that was not in the public domain; they knew the extent of the story perhaps more than politicians and certainly the public. Politicians may have known about their own expenses but very little about each others; hence the system blindness that led do a total underestimation of this issue.

That's why for the Speaker to have led the resistance in making expenses information public has been perhaps the biggest tactical blunder. And I for one would join the calls for him to go. The resistance to making this information public only delayed the inevitable, and the resulting impression of the political class desperate to hold onto its privileges has been as damaging as the exposure of an out of date expenses system, totally out of touch with today's standards and expectations.But one thing that puzzles me is why Labour has not taken a more confident ground on this issue. It is Labour that came in in 1997 with a desire to clean up British politics. Political donations reform through the PPERA has meant that for the first time all can see who is potentially pulling the purse strings of political parties. The removal of hereditary peers; unquestioned for generations, and against which as an injustice the expenses system is like a younger cousin. Freedom of Information - courageous and morally right. Labour brought it in. And once the genie is out of the bottle, you cannot push it back it in.

We should still be the rightful leaders to sort out the expenses system - it has been the predictable consequence of what we began in 1997. And even at this time, I am proud to be Labour, and that the exposure of this issue would most likely not have happened without my party. But it means that now we need to find the courage to step forward and to consistently be leaders not followers on this issue.

But to do that is going to require real clarity. Clarity on who is in charge, and who we want the public to know is in charge. Clarity on how to respond to the public mood. Clarity on how the parties must work together - things will only change if consensus is reached. Clarity on how we think the expenses rules should change, which were clearly wrong and in which there is no public confidence. Clarity on who is accountable for the system, including the fees office who I hear have apologised to some MPs for the advice they gave; but who had a responsibility to the public on this and have little defence for what they have allowed to happen.

No crisis in insurmountable in my opinion; no valley of despair is so deep that there is no way out. There is always a way forward, and it may well be a long march. But with confidence, a clear view of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and communication of this, tough action against Labour MPs who have crossed the line (e.g Elliot Morley and David Chaytor), but equally defence of those who have been potentially libelled or certainly unfairly treated in this frenzy (e.g. Phil Woolas, Ed and Yvette).

This is vital; MPs who have either minor misdemeanours or factually incorrect allegations against them should not be listed alongside the potentially criminally fraudulent; they should not be hung out to dry or given to the lynch mob that is the Tory led media. Gordon's leadership is not under challenge; but his support could start to fall away if the party does not show it is prepared to defend the right-doers as well as punish the wrong-doers. We will start to see an "each person for themselves" response that will simply lead to death by 1000 cuts.This story has a long way to go before it ends. But by being leading player, we might yet be surprised at how this story starts to turn, where the public mood goes and the confidence in politics that could and should start to return. We really should take the moral high ground on this issue and find the courage to do it, that we know is there in our leaders and in our party values more widely.