Comment: What expenses and race riots have in common

The sense of separation has been growing for some considerable time. MPs are now rarely representative of anyone or anything but their own political class.

By Ted Cantle

I used the idea of ‘parallel lives’ in the Cantle report to government in 2001 on the race riots in the north of England to illustrate how different communities from the same area had entirely separate social and cultural lives. I do not think it is stretching a point too far to apply this to the ‘Westminster bubble’ and to the parliamentarians who spend most of their days closeted with their own kind, surrounded by advisors, media commentators and lobbyists.

The reason for the expenses ‘scam’ – made possible through the support of the whole House in order to find a surreptitious way of boosting pay – was not so much a loss of a moral compass, as some MPs claimed, but rather the complete loss of connection with the electorate. Contempt of the public of course goes deeper. Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ gaffe showed something much more significant; the views of ordinary people are to be listened to politely, but not taken too seriously, because they are not part of the informed political class. Many MPs regard their constituents – and even their local party colleagues -as an unfortunate hurdle which occasionally has to be negotiated and handled with well-honed political skills.

There are, of course, exceptions and most MPs are very genuinely interested in working for the greater good of their constituency and the wider world. If community cohesion has taught us anything, though, it is that the isolation and insularity of any community or group is dangerous. MPs will of course argue that their surgeries provide the bridging to bring them down to ground. Whilst there may be something in this, surgeries can also reinforce the views of ‘otherness’ in each other, as they are based upon an unequal and dependency relationship, in which people trot off to see the ‘special one’ who may solve their problems. Most MPs look forward to surgeries with a sense of dread and this procession of people with problems pouring through the door – hardly likely to portray them as vibrant citizens taking responsibility for the democratic process.

David Cameron has already begun to recognise the problem in a small way, by downscaling what he sees as the overly divisive security cordon around ministers. But just how do we make the political class more permeable and representative – how do we regard them as ‘people like us’?

First and foremost, we have to firmly dispense with the notion that politics is a job for life. We need strict limits on length of tenure, roles need to be regularly rotated, sabbaticals must be introduced and new forms of recompense should be developed to encourage contributions for different periods of time and levels. Recruitment from without, not within, must become the norm.

We should also abandon any reform of the House of Lords which simply reinforces the present system and take the opportunity to develop an entirely new approach – in the form of a people’s electoral college, which could help to deal with the representation deficit at the same time.

Rather than less MPs we need more, to enable greater flexibility and permeability. Reducing the number by 10% sounds very attractive at the moment, but the constituencies are too large to develop a meaningful relationship with constituents; and with a growing population we need to avoid an even greater estrangement.

We should introduce a right for any employee to have time off for public service, with the employer compensated by the state on a loss of service basis, up to a maximum level, as an alternative to a fully salaried system. The same should apply to carers, students, or others, with compensation for the loss of their services.

In those cases where MPs do not have an occupation or outside interest, employers could be asked to offer placements on an intern basis, perhaps to help develop their careers, or just to engage with new groups and interests. Where the intake of MPs has a limited representation, perhaps from industry, or where major reforms are being contemplated, for example in health care or the post office, short-term employment could be arranged to help build their first-hand knowledge.

Sabbaticals should, in any event, be compulsory. If limits on political tenure are instituted in many different countries for prime ministers and presidents – and where long-term power has been seen to corrupt where they haven’t – why should we not be the first country to apply this to all political office? Perhaps creating a minimum period of 12 months out of power, as a sabbatical, over a period of ten years in office would be reasonable?

The local constituency arrangements also need to be radically overhauled. Again, MPs tend to be surrounded by their own team of helpers and paid staff, generally drawn from family and friends. Sir Ian Kennedy, head of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, has not entirely ended these cosy arrangements, but they will be able to hire no more than one “connected party”, including a spouse, child, parent or financial partner.

Each MP needs to be accessible and to be provided with independent and professional support to help with constituency matters, publish voting records and details of expenses. These new civil service teams could of course be supplemented by a separate set of party workers paid from party funds, but MPs would no longer depend upon an allowance system – these teams would be directly funded and would support MPs as they change and rotate.

MPs need to be drawn from the widest possible backgrounds and experiences, rather than perpetuating the self-selection process from amongst the political class. This means a limited recruitment from the very many political advisers and policy officers who have never experienced life outside the ‘Westminster bubble’, but presently figure highly in any new intake.

Parliament simply needs to switch to a more normal working week and to allow MPs to work online like the rest of us. Like all other areas of work, there will of course be times when longer and unsocial hours are necessary, and some sort of degree of evening work. But the need for all-night sittings is grossly exaggerated and is simply a way of creating and maintaining a boarding school sanctified ethos and is exclusionary.

The reputation of our parliamentarians is at an all-time low. This sense of ‘otherness’ is dangerous in any political system and needs to be addressed with urgent and radical change. We have rested on our laurels as the ‘mother of parliaments’ for too long. We now need a cultural change to reconnect our ailing political class.

Professor Ted Cantle CBE is executive chair of the Institute of Community Cohesion at Coventry University

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