Fraser Nelson says that the scale of public disgust at the MPs’ expenses scandal presents the next Prime Minister with a huge challenge — and a huge opportunity. If Cameron devolves power to voters, he will be rewarded. But if he fails, the punishment will be swift
It will be a brave parliamentary candidate who pins on a rosette, of any colour, and goes campaigning alone this weekend. There are just over two weeks until the European and local elections on 4 June, and what might be an historic defeat for Labour. But right now the safest place for any representative of a major political party is stockaded safely within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. Beyond its high railings, the distrust with which the British public has long viewed its political class has turned into outright contempt. And this crisis goes much deeper than the present scandal over expenses. It is nothing less than a collapse of confidence in British democracy as a whole.
The dog food, the manure, KitKats and the dredging of the moat have certainly kept us stunned and appalled for the past few days, but even outrages such as these do not explain the sheer strength of the public reaction. Words like ‘thieves’, ‘frauds’ and ‘looters’ are now routinely applied to our elected representatives, and few are keeping score of which party is most guilty. The feeling, reflected in opinion polls, is that all the major political parties have had their hands deep in the taxpayer’s pocket, and (even worse) that the ballot box is no longer an effective tool of redress. This is why we are at such a dangerous juncture in Britain’s constitutional history.
For all its pageantry and self-regard, the House of Commons has now become the least trusted and least popular legislature in western Europe save for in Italy (which, by no coincidence, is the only country to pay its politicians more than we do). The last two general elections drew the lowest turnouts since the war, with as many abstaining as voted for the two parties combined — an overwhelming message of rejection which is as profound as it has been studiously ignored. Parties only respond to those who kick them directly in the ballots. Abstainers, by definition, do not.
But ignoring the problem has not made it go away. The Hansard Society, which assiduously charts public attitudes to politics, found that a dismal 19 per cent agree that ‘parliament is working for me’ — and this was before the levels of expense abuse were exposed. The society now argues that Britain is facing a ‘very serious moment for representative democracy’. This is not 1997, when the general election was seen (however naively) as a moment of national purification: Tony Blair’s ‘new dawn’. In 2009, no Westminster party is seen by the public as ‘the answer’ to their grievances.
In private, David Cameron recognises this problem to a greater extent than he lets on in public. For some time, he has been concerned that his formidable opinion poll lead has not been matched by deep enthusiasm for the Conservatives. While Tony Blair inspired a 40 per cent increase in membership for Labour there has been no similar rush to the Tory ranks. All political parties have suffered a collapse in membership and a consequent funding crisis — a crisis which may lead to some form of state funding, however unpopular that may be.
One might argue that popular causes are the key to winning power — but that is not, alas, how the Westminster voting system operates. This was explained to me at the last general election by a senior Conservative strategist, who said the election boiled down to a battle for 20,000 votes: or 0.05 per cent of the electorate. ‘It’s the swing voters in swing seats who decide the balance of power,’ he said. ‘We have the computers to work out where they live. We can love-bomb them.’ This was said with sadness, not relish. It is simply the way the Westminster system forces MPs to fight.
Small wonder the British National Party is now facing the best electoral prospects in its wretched history. Brits are joining the dole queue at the fastest rate since 1982, while the number of immigrants in work is still increasing. Westminster doesn’t discuss the subject, as this is seen to alienate the 0.05 per cent. So the BNP may this time manage to send a candidate to Brussels, the first time in British history that an overtly racist party would have secured parliamentary representation.
And if the BNP does succeed, it will not just be a sign of the souring of the mood in Britain, but an indictment of the Westminster system. ‘The BNP problem is one that the political parties have partly brought on themselves,’ says Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society’s government programme. ‘The mainstream parties cannot be surprised if their behaviour turns voters away from them.’ Voters at least have a wide choice if they wish to avoid backing the major parties, as Lord Tebbit suggests, with parties like Ukip, Libertas and the English Nationalists all vying for the burgeoning anti-politics vote.
Anyone who cares about British democracy has a responsibility — to use Mr Cameron’s favourite word — to ask how it came to this. The worst aspect of the expenses fiasco is that it did not create new prejudices against the political class, but confirmed long-existing suspicions. The public could all too easily imagine the £1,200 plasma TV and the £20 Ikea bathrobe being plucked by MPs like prizes off a conveyor belt in a Bruce Forsyth game show. While the idea of £1 trillion of debt is abstract, a 45p packet of Maltesers is devastatingly vivid.
And not only in Britain. Last month Mona Sahlin, the leader of Sweden’s opposition party, had a tube of Toblerone hurled at her when giving a Mayday speech — she had charged one to expenses ten years ago and has still not been forgiven. There will be KitKats and Jaffa Cakes at the ready for the 2010 election campaign, when our MPs face the public for re-election, with their opponents knowing everything they claimed. (Indeed, there could be a whole new meaning to the Kit-Kat Club). The result might well be a huge anti-incumbent effect, giving Westminster a massive and unpredictable transfusion of new blood.
All this — at least in theory — could give Mr Cameron a substantial mandate for radical change and a chance to look afresh at politics and power. While the Cameroons travel light ideologically, and do not memorise tracts of Hayek or Burke, they are fans of the new breed of American marketing books like Nudge and Wikinomics. Although the quality of these books is variable, to say the least, and their philosophical content rarely profound, they do have in common a binding principle: that power should be in the hands of the many and not the few.
The basic transaction in parliamentary systems of representation — ‘vote for me and I will do this for you’ — has become outdated. People want the power to do it for themselves. The BBC no longer decides what people watch, just as Marks & Spencer no longer decides what they wear — and when the retailer tried to charge extra for larger bras it was forced into a rapid retreat. The genie of choice is out of the bottle, flattening hierarchies everywhere. For all politicians’ talk of handing power over to the voter, the institutions and culture of Westminster are still rooted in an idea of deference to the political class which have long ceased to have any traction.
This can be seen in the terrifying demographics of electoral behaviour. Most under-45s in Britain don’t vote, and just a third of under-25s do. The Westminster system is sustained by the generations which still regard voting as a civic duty. Yet it is a grave error to talk loosely about ‘apathy’. Polls taken among abstainers show that a third of them ar
e nonetheless active in charities, campaigning groups or community organisations. These active citizens do not want to authorise or lend their support to the disgraced Westminster class. They see a village of corrupt oligarchs, busily lining their pockets, smearing each other in email campaigns, and accruing power. When these sceptical voters are asked in elections which of the discredited political fat cats they would like to run the country on their behalf, the answer, increasingly, is: ‘none of them’.
As Mr Cameron knows, such a level of distrust is a fissile and dangerous force in a polity. He can, of course, win power by focusing on a handful of swing voters in swing seats. As he is now talking of capturing 140 new seats, the targeted voters (whose names and addresses all lie on the new Tory supercomputer) may amount to a full 1 per cent of the electorate. That is still a tiny proportion of the voting public, and wooing them is scarcely the same as fixing what the Tory leader has called Britain’s ‘broken politics’. But why would he want to fix a system that will guarantee him power?
Westminster’s first-past-the-post system intrinsically stops new parties from disrupting and disturbing the old duopoly — as the Social Democratic Party found to its cost. This leaves the discontented and disgusted with two options: abstention or mass tactical voting. The anger stoked by the expenses scandal could translate into either. It could yet yield a larger majority than Mr Cameron ever thought possible. I am told that Erith & Thamesmead, with a Labour majority of 11,500, has just been categorised as a Tory target seat. If it fell, a Tory majority on a par with Blair’s Labour landslide in 1997 would be on the cards.
But a government elected by riding a tsunami of protest votes can be swept out by the same force. Countries can get into the habit of kicking out parties ever more rapidly. Scotland, for example, is now on its fourth governing party in the space of 12 years. There is no doubt that saying ‘send a message to Brown’ will guarantee the largest Tory victory. But the absence of a clear and positive pro-Tory message is still the biggest danger in the Cameron project.
In the speed and resolve with which he responded to the expenses scandal, Mr Cameron showed once again his greatest strength: adaptability. When it comes to thrift, he has an outstanding model to emulate in the recent past of his party. Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher decided she did not like the colour of the walls of her new study in 10 Downing Street. She had it redecorated, but paid for this from her prime ministerial salary. Hers was, quite simply, a different mindset to that of the Tory MPs whose behaviour has been disclosed in the past week. No one would accuse Gordon Brown of venality, yet even he thought nothing of having the taxpayer reimburse his brother for a cleaner that they shared in their private flats.
Mrs Thatcher had what might be called an austerity valve, whereby she could almost visualise the worker whose money she would be spending had she asked the state to cough up for redecoration. It is this austerity valve that Mr Cameron has pledged to restore to his party. He has declared that thrift would be a basic principle of a government under his leadership. But the task now facing him is in many ways greater even than that which the Iron Lady confronted in 1979. The institutional and cultural challenge to Mr Cameron can only be solved by rethinking fundamentally the role between politicians, the state and government.
The depth of the crisis at least gives him licence to propose radical reform. ‘A licence that we never had,’ says a Labour privy councillor, wistfully. The sickness afflicting British democracy in 2009 is not a passing media panic: an overgrown state is spending money it can’t raise, and (for example) pestering citizens for the return of tax credit overpayments while the MPs in charge of the system claim their expense allowances with deplorable abandon. The status quo is clearly not an option. And if Cameron fails to rise to the challenge, he can expect swift punishment: the public have heard enough from charismatic young leaders saying ‘trust me’ and failing to deliver.
There is an upside to being elected in such circumstances. As Barack Obama observed in Strasbourg last month, ‘in crisis, there’s always opportunity, if it’s used properly’. Politicians aren’t supposed to admit such things, but it’s true. Britain’s democratic crisis requires not just reform, but a Glorious Revolution — and one for which there will be a healthy appetite if it is deftly enacted. This is a chance to change, utterly, the rules of the game. The opportunity facing Mr Cameron is as great as the punishment he faces if he fails.