Politics.co.uk Blog

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Expenses are dead. Long live expenses.

There's something deflating about covering MPs' expenses while historic change sweeps the Middle East.

Here we all are in parliament, leafing through the files, while the TV screens above our heads show events which will one day be considered pivotal in world history.

"Ah, look – someone's charged £14 for a taxi," you hear. How wonderful.

What was once symbolic of the decline of British politics now seem trivial and tedious – and frankly it seemed pretty dull well before the riots in Cairo.

There's always been something parochial and petty about expenses. The original scandal happened to coincide with the financial crisis, and there was something remarkable about the way the figures contrasted. Sure, we're all banker bashers now, but the vitriol directed at MPs always seemed excessive given the scale of the greed going on down the road, in the City.

But the expenses scandal opened up the political space to rejuvenate British democracy. It led to questions about electoral reform, the role of the whips and the select committees and even the point of Labour and Tories as representatives of social classes which no longer exist.

We've seen some efforts at change since then – a bit more backbench power, the use of urgent questions in the Commons (well done Bercow), a referendum on AV. We need more, to drag us out of our slumber. But in a political system as anaemic as Britain's, you'll take what you can get.

That's useful. Trawling through MPS' expenses really isn't. The way right wing commentators focus on this pitiful amount of money while ignoring the monumental tax avoidance of multinationals is so deranged and misguided I don't really have the words to express it.

The solution to the MPs expenses scandal was always so simple and cheap: Just automatically upload all expenses claims online. I’d like to see how many MPs keep making excessive claims then. No need for Ipsa, no need for hacks to spend their entire day trawling through files of absurdly low claims – and importantly, no need to make becoming an MP an even worse prospect than it already is. Now then, back to Egypt.

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