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April 9, 2014

Who do they speak for?

The issue of Culture Sec, Maria Miller’s expenses claim and her apology, or lack of it, has reignited the debate about the conduct of our politicians. Excellent piece by Deborah Orr in Guardian which goes beyond the obvious issues in this case (honesty, integrity etc) and questions why so many politicians have such a tenuous link with the people and communities they represent. She argues that if elected representatives were required to be from their constituencies – to have lived there as a citizen- it would transform politics at a stroke.



Deborah Orr, Guardian

What does it mean when culture secretary Maria Miller is backed by David Cameron after being shown to have abused her expenses allowances between 2005 and 2009? Above all else, I think it means that the Conservatives accept only formally the changes in expenses rules that came after the expenses scandal. They understand – dimly – that these new rules have to be adhered to for political reasons. They do not understand that the previous rules were corrupt, a consequence of the abusive relationship between Westminster and the voters all over the country that it claims to represent. They do not understand that it’s not all about money, either.

Miller represents the people of Basingstoke, and that was where, ostensibly, her first home was. But this first home, this real home, was not the place where her family and her parents lived. Instead, they all lived in her second home, the five-bedroom Wimbledon home she needed only for the part of her work that was centred on Westminster. Interestingly, it’s a 45-minute commute by train to Wimbledon from central London, and one hour to Basingstoke. Ms Miller needed a second home, stuffed with dependants, to save herself 30 minutes a day on the days she had parliamentary business in town.

Laughable, of course. But not funny. Why, when Miller was elected to parliament in 2005, was it so necessary for her to uproot her family from Basingstoke, and settle them all in London, in the second home she needed for her new job? She didn’t, of course. It was the Basingstoke home that she needed for work, because in order to continue her London-based career, she had to be elected to a safe seat. Up and down the country, constituencies are “represented” by Londoners, people whose roots in the area they speak for are non-existent.

Miller was born in Wolverhampton and brought up in Bridgend. Both generally return Labour MPs. The people she was born and bred among didn’t want her, so that was no good. There is often talk of people being “parachuted into safe seats” and cynical comment about people popping up in towns they’ve never before been seen in, claiming that they are the best person in the world to know and understand what is good for that town.

They all do it. Neil Kinnock’s son, Stephen, is raising some eyebrows because he has been selected to stand for Aberavon. He was born in Wales, at least. But he went to school in London, and has been married to the prime minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmid, since 1996. He is familiar with the second-homes concept. It was reported by a Danish tabloid in June 2010 that although for political purposes he lived with his wife and children in Copenhagen, his residence for tax purposes was in Switzerland. His arrangements were found to be “within the rules”. It would be nice if prospective Labour MPs followed principles dictating that they pay their taxes where their families reap the benefits of tax-payer funded infrastructure, whatever the rules may be. But that’s not important, apparently.

While this tendency to shove career politicians, marked for promotion within the party, into safe seats is disliked, it is also accepted. All parties make a massive meal of it, on the occasions when a local person is standing for parliament. Yet, if they think it’s such a wondrous selling point, why do they let it go hang when there’s a rising star to be shoehorned into a party’s hierarchy? Because the party is the priority, of course, not the voter. Not the country.

In terms of house prices, the north-south divide has never been greater. It’s clear, of course, that all those career politicians, whose “second homes” were in London, really viewed the capital – where their careers were – as their first homes. But with property prices so high in London, the temptation was for once to adopt the otherwise much-abused idea that the constituency was the heart and soul of the parliamentarian’s career, and London just a part-time dwelling when parliament was sitting. That was about money, of course, lots of it. Miller reportedly made £1.2m on the sale of her taxpayer-funded second home. She is now, grudgingly, going to pay back £5,800 of £44,000 in overpaid allowances, a mistake she made because interest rates dropped without her noticing.

Of course, it’s awful, the personal financial and lifestyle benefit so many MPs took from all this. But what’s less often acknowledged is that those inflated London house prices are just a symptom of the sickness of a metropolis whose magnetic pull for the ambitious is far too great, causing huge detriment to the rest of the country. Political parties see the parliamentary constituencies of Britain in much the same way as the Tudors saw the country’s estates – theirs to take if their own influence became irresistible, and to hand to those they favour.

Britain’s local government is etiolated. Britain’s local economies are d. Britain’s local media is etiolated. It would transform politics, and attitudes to politics, if MPs were expected to come up through the local rank and file; if there was a connection that made local politics interesting, because it was from there – guaranteed – that local MPs, ministers, maybe leaders or prime ministers, would come. Instead, people with national-level political ambitions are already in London, with no need to cleave to a part of the world they know something about, and engage with its people and its problems over time, advancing because they have developed a proven track record in attracting infrastructure, business investment, jobs, new ideas and better services to that area. MPs all trill the praises of competition. But they prefer to compete with each other only in networking.

We complain that politics is dominated by Etonians, the children of political families, Oxbridge graduates in politics, philosophy and economics, and the metropolitan elite. We complain that politicians have their eye to the main chance when they leave politics. We complain that they live in a Westminster bubble, far away from the concerns of real people living real lives. We complain that all over London, not just in politics, opportunities are open only to those with money, power and influence behind them. But we continue to accept a so-called parliamentary democracy that is based on metropolitan party patronage.

I don’t know why it is that no one from Basingstoke is fit to represent Basingstoke. Or why no one from Aberavon is fit to represent Aberavon. In fact, I doubt that either town deserved the insult of these decisions. But I do know that there are far, far more people living in London and hoping to become MPs than the capital can possibly accommodate. As long as that goes on, Britain will be carved up and served to career politicians as an amuse-bouche, to be gulped down before the main meal of their instant elevation to parliamentary power.

Maria Miller’s financial hypocrisies are the least of it. Her great hypocrisy is in representing people entirely in the interests of her own career, and she shares that hypocrisy with many of her colleagues. This is a deep, structural hypocrisy, one that the expenses scandal and the new rules that came of it don’t touch. Britain needs to decentralise. All of the politicians say so. The means of doing so is in their hands and always has been. But in reality they prefer anti-democratic patronage, handing out slabs of Britain to their coteries, who will reward them with partisan loyalty. In the case of Miller, we see how blatant, how egregious, politicians think they can be in doing that. None of us should let them get away with it for another single minute.