This is not in any way to condone some of the scandals. Part of the problem was that the system awarded MPs ‘allowances’. The word conveys a sense of entitlement. It is clear therefore that many MPs simply slapped in a bill for the total amount of ‘allowances’ that they could claim without having to produce receipts. For example, Alex Salmond is now both the First Minister in the Scottish Parliament and also a (largely absent) member of the UK Parliament. At one stage he was claiming the maximum allowance of £400 a month for food from the latter, while primarily engaged in campaigning within Scotland for the Scottish National Party. At least he can point to an ample waistline as evidence that perhaps he really was doubling up on meals.
Others enraged the public far more. Conservative MPs with country estates and grand mansions to maintain claimed for the normal trimmings of a gentlemanly lifestyle. Moats had to be cleaned, ducks housed, climbing plants trimmed back from elegant walls and chimney pots. That grandees lead a life widely out of touch with the majority of the population is by definition a truth, and so not a surprise. The real venom has not been directed at them. Instead the hate figures are those, mainly Labour members, who have used their position to play the property market.
Rising on the housing market escalator has been the biggest thrill of the British middle class for 30 years if not more. A house is not just for living in. It is something to pay for your holidays, your children’s private education and university fees, private health care and eventually to tide you through retirement. For many people until the crash of 2008, the value of their house in a year increased more than the money they earned from employment.
Members of parliament were able to get a double ticket to this bonanza. They could have two houses, one of which was largely paid for by the taxpayer. Buy cheap with your mortgage costs paid, improve using the allowances, sell on for a profit – or “flip” your second home so that you now designate it as your first home and start the process again. No wonder so many people are envious. Most of us only get one house to speculate with – or have to become petty landlords at our own expense and risk to make a double killing, which is then taxed, unlike the windfall gains the MPs could make! Far from being ‘out of touch’ the MPs working this wheeze were wired into the zeitgeist that shaped the UK at least since the election of Mrs. Thatcher in 1979 and her populist policy of selling social housing at heavily discounted prices and residualising the rump of the social housing that could not be sold – and with it the tenants living in such houses.
The moral and ideological implosion of the Labour Party is intertwined in this story. During the 1990s New Labour successfully set about creating itself as a party to win elections. All kinds of policy and institutional baggage that might get in the way of that - like taxing the rich to reduce hardship to the poor, or the links with the trades unions – were thrown overboard. In the process the party was able to offer good career prospects to those who wanted to be a professional politician. A public service ethos was no longer a required credential. New Labour believed in … ‘what works’.
In fact, there is some evidence that the New Labour government has indeed delivered on that manifesto. A study by the respected polling company Ipsos Mori has recently been published. It looks at people’s satisfaction with their local area – police, the National Health Service and local authorities. Guess what it reveals. The public in England, the same people who are so contemptuous of government and politicians, are actually remarkably satisfied. Satisfaction stands at 80%, five points up on the figure for 2006. Twelve per cent fewer people are worried about drug users and teenagers hanging around. Concern about rubbish and litter on the streets has also fallen – by 6%. Worry about education has fallen to the lowest level in 25 years, while the health service has record levels of satisfaction.
Though local councils seem to be doing things that make their residents happy, in fact satisfaction with those councils dropped to the lowest level for more than a decade. Furthermore, satisfaction with councils mainly depends on the type of people who live there, not on what the council itself actually does. The happiest places are the places which have a high proportion of university graduates, relatively few children, lots of private housing, low levels of household movements in and out, and least ethnic diversity.
So are we seeing the emergence of a new kind of politics, a kind of community of individuals held together by a belief in exclusion of outsiders? Might the economic crisis and climate change accentuate such trends, as people retreat from dependency on governments or big finance into more small-scale, self-protecting forms of living? Is the attractiveness of Europe’s small towns a vital element in this process? Will such towns become growth centres – or places surrounded by the equivalent of a moat, a set of policies designed to keep out newcomers?