The Cost of Expenses

It is right that there is anger over MPs’ expenses, says Will Brown, but let’s not damn all politics.

The row over MPs’ expenses and the misuse of public funds have rightly been met with pubic anger and criticism. It is indeed indefensible that MPs should be making a fast buck from the public purse at a time of economic crisis.

However, there is a venomous and indiscriminate edge to the expenses row that should concern all democrats and especially all social democrats.

It is worth pausing for a moment amid the hullabaloo to think about how this scandal has changed the political agenda. Only a few months ago the focus of public condemnation were bankers. In the wake of bank bail-outs, and evidence of quite stupendous profligacy by private financial institutions, it was the business class at the sharp end of criticism and it was bank chiefs, departed or departing, who were hauled in front of Commons select committees to atone for their sins.

Wider political questions concerned the extent to which economic policy had to change, whether new regulatory architecture would be agreed, and whether a rebalance between the state and market was now needed. The death of neoliberalism and a return of Keynesianism were widely touted – with the usual hyperbole of the media.

Yet, for any rebalancing to have political force, we need a functioning and, dare one say it, trusted public arena; a democratic political agency to set against and tame the rampant market.

Whether by coincidence or design, the expenses row has thrown all that into doubt. Who now will argue that the correct response to the financial crisis is to enlarge the role for the state? Who now will dare suggest that the public sector can carry the interests of the people when those in charge are denigrated en mass?

What is most alarming about the current hysteria is the way it is being used to damn, not just all MPs (unfairly in some cases), but all politics. No MPs are spared, no sense of proportion is countenanced. There is no recognition that many, perhaps most, expenses – such as travel and secretarial support – are necessary if MPs are to representing people and holding government to account. Instead, the whole edifice is discredited and party politics itself called into question.

For social democrats the problems are even worse. The entire social democratic project rests on the viability of a democratic public sphere, of a state, political system, and public arena that can be an agency for collective social aims, and create a framework within which the market is the servant rather than the master. A collapse of faith in the parliamentary centre of this public realm is enormously damaging to left of centre politics, as the results of this week’s elections seem to show.

Of course, new Labour must share a deal of blame for all this. The new Labour project did little to make a sustained case for collective public action, and much to promote, indeed celebrate, individual aggrandisement. Add to that the way it entangled the private sector into every sphere of state provision, and integrated wealthy businessmen within the political elite, and the ground was laid for today’s scandals.

The left rightly draw attention to the way the interests of the few come out on top, both in the economy and in politics. It is tempting to declare a plague on both their houses – bankers and MPs.

But here the left should tread warily. Even the popular outcry at the failures of the bankers had a hysterical, individualising character to it, personalising the wrong-doing of particular executives, traders and the ‘greed’ they embodied, rather than serious analysis of the system itself.

The repetition of this in the MPs’ expenses scandal may obscure more than it reveals, and makes the reconstruction of a viable politics of the left ever harder. Only right wing demagogues and free marketers are likely to benefit from this cursing of the political.

These issues, and more, were discussed at the ILP’s round table seminar – Crunch Times: Politics and the Crisis – on 13/14 June 2009. You can read reports and articles from the weekend here.


  1. Jonathan Timbers
    18 June 2009

    I think that this (and the comments by Rowan Williams) about nails it down! However, are we all social democrats now, working for social justice within ‘the social market’?

    Might the term ‘socialist’ still be admissable for those of us who believe that finance capital should be subject to social priorities (like Fair Trade, human rights etc), and believe that the state has a role in ensuring that these ‘commanding heights’ are subject to democratic controls?

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