Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Price of Politics

There are broadly two views about the funding of politics and politicians - especially Westminster MPs. One, which might be called the Alan Duncan view, suggests that their pay and perks should reflect the important work they do and the high status they ought to enjoy. Cutting their expenses to the bone, forcing them to account for every farthing, making them "live on rations" is demeaning; worse, it risks undermining the authority of Parliament and reducing the calibre of MPs. Since MPs are, in theory, what stand between the public and the might of the state - since they are, in fact, the soul of democracy - anything that diminishes them diminishes us. The greater danger is to render our representatives servants of the state, rather than the servants of the people.

It was for expressing such a view in typically colourful fashion that Alan Duncan was demoted this morning. At the same time, his leader, David Cameron, has made a speech setting out an opposite point of view. Though he did not say so explicitly, the Cameron line is that it is the feather-bedding of MPs that is bad for democracy, especially in a time of hardship for so many others. Politicians should be made to feel the pain of the ordinary voter - by, for example, losing their "communications allowance" (described by Cameron as "nothing less than old-fashioned, state-sanctioned propaganda") and their subsidised meals in the House of Commons canteen. He pointed out that the cost of running Parliament has doubled over the lifetime of the Labour government without its becoming twice as good. He promises that under the Tories "the gravy train will well and truly hit the buffers".

All well and good. At a time of belt-tightening in both public and private sectors, it would be dangerous for MPs to appear exempt from cutbacks. Cameron's speech was especially strong on the benefits, when it comes to cutting expenditure, of transparency. "When set budgets are spent in opaque systems," he said, "it's so easy for a casual spendaholic culture to set in" - giving, among other examples, the scarcely credible fact that "the NHS bought a yacht and moored it in a Hull marina". He offered an enticing vision of millions of voters - but presumably he means a handful of bloggers, or just Dizzy - "crawling over the government's books", identifying waste, acting as "a straightjacket on spending". Can't wait.

I also warmed to Cameron's suggestion that a cheaper politics is also a more democratic, more local politics. Local authorities, he argued, tend to be more efficient than national government - and most inefficient of all are the quangos and other largely unaccountable intermediary bodies such as the unelected regional assemblies, which he promises to scrap. As usual, he doesn't always follow through the logic of his arguments. For example, he criticises the Electoral Commission, saying that:

Thirty years ago British elections were overseen by a handful of people in the Home Office. In those days most people voted and no-one cheated. Today, the same responsibility lies with the Electoral Commission, which employs 156 people full-time. Since 2001 its annual budget has more than trebled from £7.6 million to £24 million, but we've never had lower turnout and we've never had more corruption.

Yet with his next breath he claims that the Electoral Commission "provides a vital independent and impartial oversight of our democratic process", and promises that, cut down to size, it will continue to exist under his government. What he doesn't explain is why, if it is so vital today, it wasn't vital thirty years ago. Similarly, though he talked of the cost of the 169 ministers, and promised a 5% cut in their salaries, but said nothing to suggest that the number of government offices - which has hugely expanded under Labour - will be reduced. Given the promise to decimate the House of Commons itself, this is a rather curious omission.

That, though, isn't the major qualm I have about Cameron's cut-price politics pledge. What worries me is that however justified - indeed, inescapable - is the paring back of politicians' perks in the dawning era of austerity, it also draws attention to the irrelevance of Westminster politics. A slimmed-down House of Commons might be leaner, meaner and closer to the voters. But it is also in danger of looking like a poor relation of its upstart cousin on the Continent. And while the Westminster gravy train resembles a rickety old thing that has been in service since the days of British Rail, the Brussels version is a sleek, hyper-modern TGV, and the gravy it doles out is getting steadily thicker.

Boris Johnson was on splendid form in yesterday's Telegraph describing the sense of power and vitality currently emanating from the European Parliament. He was there recently, begging the leaders of what most people here still believe to be a toothless and irrelevant talking shop not to destroy the City's hedge fund industry. The contrast with Westminster, he noted, was both real and symbolic:

To call it a palace is a wild understatement. It is a series of palaces, a city within a city, with bars and restaurants and coiffeurs, and arcing passerelles linking one modernist monstrosity with another....

There may have been a bar in the old Brussels Euro-parliament office, but not even the most desperate journalist would have gone there in search of a story. Today that parliament bar is heaving, and so are all the innumerable places of refreshment, pullulating with animated young thrusters of both sexes, their Christian Dior spectacles glittering with lust for – lust for what? Power, that's what. For the first time in the 30-year history of this much-mocked institution I had a sense of the power that seeps from the brown moleskin walls, and as I watched huissiers scuttling softly to and fro, I saw an assembly newly drenched and glistening with a rich béarnaise of self-confidence.

Brussels, increasingly, is where the power is. It's also where the money is. For all Cameron's entirely accurate observations about the perks enjoyed by Westminster MPs, they are as nothing when compared with what's on offer to their European equivalents. Open Europe recently calculated that an MEP cost the voter more than three times as much as a national elected Parliamentarian, and almost nine times as much as a lord. The EU parliament as a whole costs £1.3 billion a year, dwarfing the £500 million that David Cameron was complaining about.

And what is the money being spent on? Open Europe has some details. There are allowances, for a start: MEPs, the study found, claim up to £363,000 a year in expenses, vastly more than their Westminster equivalents. Nor do they have to produce receipts for their claims - which means, among other things, that they're unlikely to be embarrassed by stories of duck islands or pay-per-wank porn films. David Cameron wants to scrap the final salary pension scheme for all new MPs; fine, but their arrangements are already far less generous than those of MEPs:

If MPs contribute the standard 10% of their salary to their pension over a ten year period (a whole year’s salary of £63,291), they will have access to a pension of £15,822 per year. By contrast, under new rules to come into force after the elections, MEPs will receive an annual pension of £27,954, after paying in nothing at all from their own salaries over the same ten year period.

Among other dubious items of expenditure identified by open Europe were €21.6 million on translation services; around €6 million on transport (including "a chauffeur service for MEPs and a limo service for each political group leader"); a €9 million-a-year dedicated TV channel which almost no-one has ever watched; €18 million spent on a PR agency hired, with little evidence success, to increase turnout at elections; more than €200 million spent annually on commuting between the Parliament's two seats in Brussels and Strasbourg; and offices throughout the EU promoting the Parliament's work - that in London alone cost almost £30 million to acquire and renovate. Or how about the new environmentally friendly "aqua-gym" complex - incorporating steam baths and a solar-powered sauna - that is being planned, at cost to the taxpayer of €5 million, for the relaxation and refreshment of MEPs. The plans "have come under criticism as MEPs already have access to a perfectly functioning gym". There's also a new Vistitors' Centre, which hasn't opened yet but has already cost in excess of €15 million. Apparently the attraction will include "an interactive feature that will allow the public to simulate the work of an MEP". It'll be a trough, then.

It's amazing to think that Nigel Farage wants to give all this up to become a lone voice at Westminster. Especially since - as Mayor Boris makes all too clear - the difference in perks accurately reflects the effective power of the two institutions. Echoing Alan Duncan, he writes that our MPs "have been so bullied, burned and beaten by the media that they seem to have had a collective nervous breakdown." The new rules introduced in the wake of the expenses scandal represent "a protracted humiliation", even the reduction in the number of MPs suggests to him that our Parliament is becoming in every sense smaller.

He thinks it an "unreformed Gormenghast" of a Parliament, hobbled by ancient conventions, while in Brussels MEPs "are attended by every possible comfort" and benefit from having "minimal interaction with their constituents". It is "growing in physical splendour and size", and even the lunches are "as uninhibited as ever". The irony in Johnson's tone is plain: the democratic deficit and the extravagant perks of the European parliament belong together. Both are features of Brussels' modernity. They are also features of its growing power, which is why it is so "telling to see the physical contrast between desiccated Westminster and sleek, self-confident Brussels".

It reflects, he thinks, "the shift in the balance of power and the fact that the laws of this country are no longer determined by Parliament at Westminster". And he should know: he, after all, was in Brussels because Westminster - MPs and government alike - has little or no power to prevent the passing of new regulations that will strangle an important part of London's financial services industry.

Magnificence and wastefulness are markers not merely of excess. Grandiosity has reflected self-confidence and authority since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. Modern corporations house themselves in the swankiest buildings they can afford - often, indeed, that they cannot afford - and spend their customers' money on office furniture or hospitality not simply through self-indulgence but because making an impression counts. The Palace of Westminster itself is a showpiece built at the height of British prosperity and power. Extravagance only becomes folly when the display is empty, the magnificence feigned: when, in fact, the outward show is not a reflection of strength but a disguise of weakness. In recent years, to take another example, bishops of the Church of England have faced criticism for living in historic palaces, the upkeep of which seems anomalous alongside declining congregations and the parlous state of church finances. Complaints are typically framed in terms of principle: Jesus didn't live in a palace, it is said, so why should the Bishop of Bath and Wells? But the true explanation is the collapse in Anglican morale.

Our MPs got into trouble earlier this year not just because they were troughing it, but because the increase in their perks has accompanied a huge decline in their actual power, vis-a-vis the executive and vis-a-vis the world. They are fish who have fattened themselves while their pond evaporated; they look venal because they are cheap. It is as though their generous expenses have been awarded to compensate them for their decline in status and influence - or to distract them from it. But cutting them down to size, however desirable, risks making their Liliputian dimensions even more apparent. National politics will look ever more parochial. And the splendid buildings in Brussels, likened by Boris Johnson to "gigantic alien motherships of glass and steel", will continue to drain power as lavishly as their denizens enjoy their perks.