Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Framewatch: MPs' expenses and the rot at the top

Politics is all about ideas and debates. It’s also about people and about issues. But the information is pared down or magnified into frames. Most people like simple storylines. 

Just have a look at the covers of many of today’s papers. 

The Daily Telegraph:

“Public anger rises over perks for MPs”

Or the Daily Express:


Then there’s the Daily Mail:

“As ordinary Britons battle recession, MPs get an inflation busting pay rise AND their annual expenses sour to £94m WHAT PLANET ARE THEY ON?”

The frame is all about public resentment of MPs and, increasingly, elite groups in society, seeming to get loads of money from the public trough while many people face tough times.

The archetype, well worn over the years, is the enemy within. The narrative we’re seeing is that “it’s time to deal with them, to “stop the rot”. Sometimes it’s immigrants and asylum seekers. Other times “the rot” is yobs or hoodies. This time, the rot is at the top and the emotional trigger is all about resentment of people who are well paid out of the public purse and seem to have failed us all.

Some Liberal Democrats may see the rows over MPs expenses as an opportunity. That’s understandable. “The rot at the top” has been a staple of the party’s narratives ever since the days of Jo Grimond. Look at Nick Clegg’s speech to spring conference: the rot is both Labour and the Conservatives and the heroes are the Liberal Democrats. 

Politicians from the other parties seem very happy to help out. The employment minister, Tony McNulty and the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, have assembled their own firing squads (though Ms Smith has now been joined in spectacular fashion by her hapless husband). In its own way, the performance of the Conservative party chairman, Eric Pickles, trying to defend the allowances for MPs’ second homes, was just as astonishing. 

Yet this will be a hard issue for the Liberal Democrats to grapple with. First, Gordon Brown upstaged both David Cameron and Nick Clegg by calling for MPs’ second home allowances to be scrapped. The PM also wants Sir Christopher Kelly’s to speed up his inquiry into MPs’ expenses.

Second, and more importantly, the expenses row contaminates politicians of all parties. “THEY ARE ALL AT IT” screams the Daily Mirror on today’s front page. The Liberal Democrats are in the frame too, whether that’s fair or not. 

I think The Independent’s Steve Richards is correct when he writes that British MPs are not corrupt but have brought a lot of their image problems on themselves. They have allowed the rules around expenses to get complicated and been far too slow to take effective action. He also makes another interesting point: the overall quality of MPs, and not their integrity, is really the issue. 

There’s much more at stake. Despite Brown’s intervention, the public’s sense of indignation won’t go away. Polly Toynbee has an ominous but acute warning in her Guardian column:

“MPs have been caught napping by the new wave of puritanism. Others will now come under unaccustomed scrutiny. Let this be a warning to all public officials, quangos, councils, councils, NHS officials, sports authorities or anyone holding even minor power. Something has snapped. If public trust was low, it has fallen down a crevasse in this financial crisis.”

So, we can expect a media-driven revolt against “overpaid” public sector leaders and managers. As with the out-of-touch MPs, some of the criticism will be unfair and misplaced, with issues over-simplified. But anyone responsible for making “public policy” happen and running “public services” could be caught up in this hurricane. The very basis of liberal politics –democratic politics and action by an accountable as indispensable ways to addressing our problems- will be further eroded.

And the “rot” story still needs a hero; “the people” must have a champion. The core of the public resentment is too sour and bitter, too emotive, too radioactive for Nick Clegg and co to mess with. There will be no shortage of candidates ready to have a go. Over the last few days, I have become more convinced that minor and fringe parties will poll well in this year’s European Parliament elections. Yes, that includes the BNP.

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