The recent kerfuffle about MPs’ expenses, incomes, and the funding of politics reminded me of a conversation I had some months ago with a leading Conservative figure about tax. I said that I thought tax could be a good issue for the Conservatives, if done right (‘done right’ meaning designed to benefit the ‘strugglers’ and the whole economy, and communicated well) because in the end people are driven by their self-interest, and they are rather good at discerning that self-interest.
He thought this rather crass. He insisted that people took a broader view. I suggested that MPs appeared to be very good at discerning their own self-interest and acting accordingly, so why shouldn’t the rest of us be the same? MPs are forever deciding to act in ways that suit their careers; they trim their own opinions about what’s best for the country to suit the furtherance of their position within the party and for the prospects of that party; whether in the content or the process of politics, they constantly adjust their principles to ease the desired outcome. I don’t blame them one bit, they are no different from journalists, business people, teachers, engineers and bus drivers. We are all just as our genes designed us. We can take a broad view where we are not personally affected, but where we are closely touched, we look to what’s best for ourselves and our families.
Watching the House of Commons rally around their speaker reminds us starkly how perfectly they are their own tribe, looking after their own interests. “We’ll sort this out in our own sweet way,” they tell us, sometimes quite explicitly. Yesterday they launched an ‘early day motion’ criticising the BBC’s Nick Robinson for daring to suggest that some MPs may by visibly supporting the Speaker because they worry they may otherwise not be called on to speak so much in the future.
I confidently predict that the outcome of any enquiry by The House will be to make their lives a little better. I also confidently predict that the related discussions about funding of political parties will do nothing that touches Labour’s dependence on the Unions or the Conservatives' dependence on Lord Ashcroft. Further, that no new settlement will in any way require political parties to become more engaged with the general public in order to ensure a suitable flow of cash. We will, I am sure, be seeing little evidence among MPs of the high-mindedness they seem to expect from the rest of the population.
Some months ago I wrote for this site that we should focus more on 'how politics works', and from the comments it was clear that no-one thought this relevant. Recent events make me renew my call, and warn that the issue of politics and money will continue to fester. Politicians think that these things don’t matter much to the general public, that a little disgruntlement comes and goes, and has no lasting effect. But the single strongest impression that the public has of the political class is that tribe’s unpleasant self-obsession. If they can’t change that, politicians will find still fewer people voting. What that does to the fortunes of the parties is anyone’s guess.