Comment: Is parliament's expenses rehabilitation complete?

Parliament, once the people's enemy, is fast becoming its ally again
Parliament, once the people's enemy, is fast becoming its ally again

Whether debating the death penalty or pushing the phone-hacking scandal forwards, it looks like MPs are finally getting their act together.

By Alex Stevenson

Two years ago parliament's reputation was in a ropy state. The full extent of the expenses scandal revealed a culture of complacent back-slapping which shocked the country. Politicians' reputations, already pretty ropy, slumped to new lows. They had let us down, and they knew it.

The first step was making the problem go away - something politicians are always especially adept at. Despite the terrible teething problems the new system has endured, its draconian restrictions have at least stopped the rot of negative stories. Journalists in parliament groan when the latest batch of expenses claims are published, knowing they won't find anything much to write home about. Expenses is, finally, a non-story.


MPs went further than just fixing their allowances culture, however. They realised they needed to do much, much more to re-engage with ordinary people. The new drive towards e-petitions, launched this week, sums up the progress they've made. Any e-petition which attracts over 100,000 signatures is likely to be debated in the Commons. An early frontrunner is blogger Guido Fawkes' call for the death penalty to be reinstated.

MPs will, undoubtedly, defeat any such proposal overwhelmingly. But it's exactly the kind of right-wing issue which many people care about. On so many issues there's a gap between what the mainstream political parties believe and the privately extreme views of many. It's the unrepresented space which far-right groups like the BNP and the English Defence League have sought to exploit.

Philip Davies, a thoroughly right-wing Tory MP, claims that "the public are a long way ahead of the politicians". I'd argue that they're a long way behind.

But it doesn't matter how you define it. What's important is that the politicians engage. Rather than ignoring the gulf between MPs and the people they represent, debating the issues will help narrow it. It won't be long before a generic issue like immigration is attracting signatures for an e-petition. Bring it on, MPs should be saying. The more the public's real concerns are addressed by politicians, the better.

Addressing divisive issues like the death penalty will be a big help. The phone-hacking scandal has been an enormous one.

Parliament, having made itself more relevant through the Libya vote, has become a champion of the pursuit of truth in its struggles against the Murdochs and their dubious allies. Labour backbencher Tom Watson is right to characterise this struggle as an attritional war. It's the kind of dogged step-by-step chipping away which MPs do all the time on their own pet subject. If it wasn't for parliament, the scandal wouldn't have made the headway it has in the last five weeks.

What a change from two years ago. MPs are no longer the enemy of the public, in it for themselves. They're engaging with the public's interests, pushing to hold the powerful to account, on the public's side.

There may be some way to go, however. The phone-hacking scandal also teaches us that there remains a deep-seated mistrust of the vested interests controlling Britain. The police, the politicians and the press, mired together in what the public suspect to be an unseemly mire of corruption, are succeeding in deepening distrust at the whole rotten system.

Today's news that human rights campaigners are walking away from the torture inquiry offers another example of the same problem. Suspicions that Britain was complicit in the torture of terror suspects, through the practise of extraordinary rendition and otherwise, were never going to be met with New Labour ministers' repeated denials. Nor, it now seems, are they to be placated by the inquiry the coalition set up. Its terms of reference give the head of the civil service the final say over what material shall be released into the public domain, and what kept classified. It's being branded a "whitewash". Yet again, the governing classes - the diplomats, the civil servants, as much as the politicians - are coming out on top.

These examples of the fundamental distrust which ordinary people hold for their government offer an opportunity for parliament. It's up to our MPs to harness these hostile feelings and use every lever at their power to make the lives of those in power more uncomfortable.

Parliament must be the ally of the people against the powerful. The more it fights the good fight, the quicker the expenses scandal fades from the public's memory.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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