Does the expenses row sound the death knell for New Labour?

May 12, 2009

justin_fisher- Justin Fisher is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Magna Carta Institute at Brunel University. The opinions expressed are his own. -

The expenses crisis is well and truly engulfing Westminster, with equal anticipation and dread about future revelations. Labour was quite reasonably aggrieved that the initial stories all seemed to be about their MPs.

Perhaps this was naive – governing parties are obviously more interesting than their rivals – but the fear was that this crisis would be indelibly linked with Labour and Labour alone. Yet perhaps they needn’t have worried – the Telegraph was keeping its powder dry and today’s stories about some Conservative MPs are possibly even more damaging.

Claiming for a bathplug may raise a titter and seem petty – claiming for repairs to a swimming pool is of a wholly different order – at least as far as the public is concerned.

But before we rush to condemn all MPs, or insist that they must live like paupers in future, let’s step back a little. It is clear that some MPs have made extortionate claims. These claims were apparently within the rules, but they do appear to any reasonable person to have gone beyond the bounds of moral acceptability. Equally, the apparent practice of “flipping” second homes to maximise allowances is unacceptable and should not have been permitted.

But those examples should not be used to damn all MPs. The level of expenses claimed by most MPs may well seem extraordinary to the general public. But the job of an MP is itself extraordinary. MPs are expected to work both at Westminster and in their constituencies, which for many MPs is beyond a reasonable commute.

In fact, MPs are much better these days at serving constituents’ needs – they deal with far more issues in their constituencies than was previously the case. All of that costs money and we are better served for it. MPs who live beyond a reasonable commute to Westminster require a second home, and it is not unreasonable that they should be given some financial support. And, of course, second homes need things like bathplugs – just like first homes do.

But this is a crisis nevertheless, and Labour is worried. But it doesn’t, I think, necessarily mark the death knell for New Labour, though there may be some casualties. First, Labour is likely to perform poorly in next month’s elections. But it was going to do badly anyway. Second, the difference between these sleaze allegations and those of the 1990s is that they affect both main parties, not just the one.

However unfairly, the most recent revelations may lead voters to think that “they’re all as bad as each other”. That’s bad news for the Conservatives, but better news (at least temporarily) for the smaller parties. Third, with a general election now a year away, there are signs that the worst of the recession may be over (and more importantly, there are signs that people perceive things to be getting better). That’s good news for the government.

But things are looking far less good for Gordon Brown. There are some very public stirrings of revolt against his leadership, which will be amplified after the June elections if Labour performs as badly as expected. So, the irony is that Labour could be led into the next election in reasonable position following an upturn in perceptions of the economy. But it may not be led by the man who feels he deserves the credit, but by another key figure in the New Labour project.

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