The best democracy money can buy?

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As workers lose their jobs and homes because of the recession, MPs from all the main parties have been caught on a spending spree with taxpayers' money. Michael Lavalette, a socialist councillor in Preston, makes the case for political representation with principles

The revelations about MPs' expenses have shocked and angered people across Britain and caused a political crisis that threatens the whole legitimacy of parliamentary democracy. The range of items they have claimed for on "expenses" is truly astonishing, from duck houses to moat cleaning, from mortgage payments to loo seats, from "hired help" to food bills, from council tax fiddles to claims for incidentals like light bulbs, bath plugs, scatter cushions, mirrors and Asda pizzas!

For many trade unionists, and social movement activists, the idea that you can't trust a Tory politician - that the Tories are on the make and have no interest in the majority of working class people in their constituencies - reflects a basic class instinct.

But the extent to which Labour MPs have had their noses in the trough has been astonishing. The revelations have meant the dominant argument that you hear is that "they are all the same" - shorthand for dismissing all politicians as self-serving, self-interested stooges of the main parties.

But has it always been like this? Is it the case that working class representatives have always viewed elected office as an opportunity to milk the system? To address these questions it's worth going back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

From the last quarter of the 19th century onwards increasing numbers of working class men gained the vote - women did not get the vote on equal terms with men until the election of 1929. Yet at elections working class voters were still expected to vote for "one of their betters". MPs were expected to be self-supporting, which meant it was impossible for the vast majority of working class activists to consider sitting in parliament.

This is why the various campaigns for the vote - stretching back to the Chartists - demanded not just the vote, but also payment for MPs. Without payment politics would always be the preserve of the rich and parliament an exclusive rich men's club. MPs didn't receive a salary until 1911. Prior to that Labour members had to have the support of trade unions or benefactors to help them meet their costs and support their families.

At the election in December 1910 people like George Lansbury, Will Crooks and Will Thorne were elected from London's East End. The £400 per annum they earned was significantly more than the dockers, factory workers and railway workers who dominated their constituencies. But this sum had to cover all their office and additional costs as well as their salary.

At this time earning a wage also allowed these MPs a degree of independence from the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour leadership. Lansbury, for example, used his position to campaign against poverty and unemployment and for improvements in working conditions - key issues for those he represented. He was also outspoken in his criticism of the waste of money associated with the coronation of George V and was vociferous in his support for women's suffrage.

On taking up his seat Lansbury continued to live at 39 Bow Street, in the heart of his constituency. His house became his surgery and a local advice centre. Constituents would arrive at all times during the day with problems for Lansbury to take up.

Crooks

All these East End MPs - Lansbury, Crooks and Thorne - identified closely with their constituency and their constituents. Each saw themselves as being a representative of the local working class: they lived locally and drew upon a practical knowledge of the realities of working class life and working conditions to inform their campaigning work.

They saw themselves as working class representatives - not as part of a political elite separate from those who elected them to parliament.

And it wasn't just MPs. Those who were elected to local councils or Boards of Guardians combined their role as local representatives with full-time jobs and involvement in a range of labour and trade union movement activity.

At the local elections in 1919 Labour took control of councils across the country. Overwhelmingly, the new councillors were ordinary workers. They were well known in their workplaces and in their communities. In Poplar, for example, councillors like Julia Scurr and Minnie Lansbury operated an "open door" policy so that local people knew they could drop in to the councillors' homes to raise problems and issues that affected them.

Of course, it wasn't like this everywhere. But, especially where the left were strong, the issue of representation meant a daily engagement with local electors. It meant becoming spokespeople for working class communities and a range of trade union and social protest movements.

To understand this more fully we must locate these developments in the wider context of the class struggle in Britain either side of the First World War. The periods between 1910 and 1912, and again between 1919 and 1926, were two of the high points in the history of class conflict in the 20th century. Workers in factories, docks and mines, on the railways and in the steel industry were leading the struggle for better pay and conditions, improvements to working class communities, better housing and health facilities and, as part of this, better representation.

In this atmosphere, winning Labour, socialist and Communist councillors and MPs was part of the struggle for a better world. And for many of those elected - especially those on the left - election brought responsibility. Their job was to speak up for their working class voters, reflect their interests in parliament and council chambers and engage actively in the campaigns to defend and improve working class lives.

It is worth emphasising that where this was done creatively Labour was able to forge safe seats. In Poplar in East London the councillors fought doggedly against unemployment and to defend local services - to the extent that, in 1921, 30 councillors went to jail rather than cut payments to those on poor relief (unemployment benefit). Their magnificent - and eventually victorious - stand meant that Poplar became one of the safest Labour areas in the country. In elections for Poor Law Guardians in 1922, for example, turnout across London was poor at only 23 percent, with Labour losing seats. But in Poplar, by contrast, turnout was up (to 43.2 percent) and Labour won 21 of the 24 seats available.

The lesson would seem to be that people will vote for politicians who they can trust and who fight to make a difference to the lives and communities of those they represent. This period, therefore, is a particular "moment" in the history of working class representation. In the activities and actions of some councillors and MPs (and let me stress it was only some) we can catch a glimpse of a different type of representation and a different type of representative.

That is, an elected representative who doesn't see politics as something that happens "out of sight", away from people in a closed chamber, or that occurs in some obscure parliamentary debate conducted according to arcane rules. Rather it is someone who recognises that politics is the everyday struggles of working class people to improve their lot and establish a better, more equitable and more just world; someone who sees the working class representative as an accountable activist and spokesperson for the interests of their class.

But nothing stands still in politics.

As Labour became one of the two parties of government in Britain the idea that its MPs and councillors should be vocal representatives of working class communities was marginalised. Throughout the second half of the 20th century Labour MPs became increasingly disconnected from the working class communities that elected them.

At local government level the space for councillors to act and change national policies that affect local communities has shrunk dramatically. At national level more decisions are centralised into the cabinet. At all levels the power of the party machine is there to discipline those who step out of line.

The stated intention of recent governments (both Labour and Tory) has been to "professionalise" politics. New Labour in particular has pushed an agenda that aims to "modernise" government. This has involved the creation of politicians who are more political technocrats than working class representatives.

At local government level the Local Government Act 2000 introduced the latest round of "modernisation". It further undermined democracy and marginalised the role of councillors. Decision-making was passed to cabinets or mayors, who have their policies rubber-stamped at irregular council meetings via extensive use of the party whip system.

But modernisation has also meant professionalisation of a layer of local politicians. In Lancashire County Council, for example, Labour council leader Hazel Harding (an ex-teacher on a teacher's pension) earned just over £48,500 in 2008. Her cabinet colleagues all earned between £30,000 and £45,000 in the same year.

These local councillors are now part of the corporate management structure of local authorities - and the arch privatisers of local welfare services.

The MPs' expenses scandal has its direct roots in the review of expenses that took place in 2001. MPs earn a basic salary of £64,766. Many have an additional "top-up" depending on their role on parliamentary committees, or as ministers, junior ministers or shadow ministers.

On top of this they qualify for a range of allowances. They can claim office costs (up to £21,339) and staff costs (up to £90,505), a communications allowance (up to £10,000), stationery costs (up to £7,000), incidental staff and other costs (up to £37,281), an allowance for staying away from home (up to £23,083) and a London supplement (up to £2,812). They also get free first class travel to and from their constituencies, family members are allowed 30 train fares into London, their staff are allowed 24 journeys between the constituency and parliament, and they are allowed up to three European trips a year.

It is clear that many MPs have been claiming these allowances as if they were part of their basic salary. Their obvious sense of entitlement and pleading that they were acting "within the rules" merely highlights how they are increasingly detached from the lives of those they represent. One of the remarkable features of the crisis is just how slow the MPs have been to realise the bitterness their actions had generated.

The expenses crisis has revealed a system of political corruption and deceit that raises the question of the very legitimacy of the British political system. It has fed into the growing awareness that there is something rotten at the heart of British politics and further fuelled the idea that we face a "democratic deficit" - that the interests of ordinary people are not represented by or reflected in the actions, activities and policies of any of the three main parties, and that the professionalisation of politicians has meant that they have less contact, and less in common, with those they represent.

And if each of these parties is a party of privatisation, war and support for big business, staffed by MPs who are up to their necks in dodgy and excessive claims, is it so surprising that the turnout at elections over recent years has been in such sharp decline?

The crisis emphasises the need for principled working class representatives who do not see elections as a means of improving their lives at the expense of others. We need representatives whose standard of living is similar to that of those they represent, who live in working class communities and know, first hand, the struggles ordinary people face on a daily basis.

We need individuals who see themselves as the active representatives of a class whose interests are ultimately for a more equitable, more just and more democratic society. This type of society will finally sweep away the parliamentary dung heap and replace it with a much more democratic system where the vast majority have a direct say over how society's huge wealth is distributed to meet the needs of the vast majority.


MP expenses: How I remember it, by Valerie Wise.