Political notes

We are in a populist, angry moment. But the real story is the failure of Labour's elite, now as discredited as the Tories before them
June 3, 2009

"We are the servants now," Tony Blair said in 1997, as he pledged to "restore trust in politics." Blair's goal was not to destroy the establishment but to update it, replacing a tired and slightly corrupt conservative elite with a new establishment forged through meritocracy and entrepreneurialism. As Chris Mullin, the former junior minister, wrote in his diaries: "Blair went funny around money." But it wasn't just any money. It was new money. The entrepreneurs and risk-takers were the business wing of his new elite. Branson, Stelios, Sugar, Goodwin; all were knighted under Labour. Parliament also began to resemble the nation, with more than 100 women, MPs from ethnic minorities and openly gay cabinet ministers.

Having risen to power on the wave of Tory sleaze, Blair wanted a "purer than pure" party. This may never have been a realistic ambition. Even so, 2009's events have left this new Labour establishment profoundly weakened. The once lauded City entrepreneurs have been bailed out with a new form of "social corporate responsibility," as one wag put it. Banking chiefs' defence of playing by the rules no longer seems viable, at least not in the fickle court of public opinion. Meanwhile, a brick was thrown through the window of ex-Royal Bank of Scotland chief Fred Goodwin.

Now parliament too finds itself bloodied and disorientated, as once respected Labour and Lib-Dem MPs are caught helping themselves just as eagerly as the Tories. The defence was again of acting within the rules, although some of course were not. It was a hard line to sustain when MPs set the rules, inflating expenses allowances in lieu of salary hikes that they knew the electorate would not accept. It will now be much harder with a new, reforming speaker in place, and rules set independently.

Cabinet minister Andy Burnham made revealing comments on the crisis when insisting that he had "under-claimed" on his allowance. The presumption, buried in the phrase, shows that most MPs saw their expenses as a right. The chattering classes are enjoying this delicious scandal. But public anger is real, and the crisis of confidence too. Even wise heads struggle for precedent. Oxford University constitutional doyen Vernon Bognador scratches his head and suggests parallels with the end of the fourth French republic in 1958. Tony Wright MP, a respected (and honest) member, thinks this session might earn an upper-case prefix, joining the Long, the Rump and the Addled parliaments of old. "If we are not careful," he warns, "we shall finish up with the Moat Parliament or the Manure Parliament." Meanwhile, a brick has been thrown through the window of MP Julie Kirkbride's house.

Needless to say, we are not facing revolution. No people's convention gathers across the Thames from Westminster, and laws continue to be obeyed. But we are in a populist moment. In the short term, the scandal will see an uplift in UKIP, BNP and Green support in June's local elections. This is unlikely to be repeated in 2010's national poll, although the worst-offending MPs face deselection by local parties or defenestration by local electorates. There will almost certainly be more independent MPs—a return, perhaps, for Martin Bell's white suit, or a first go for a Rantzen or Lumley. The Jury Team, set up by a rich businessman to fund independent candidates, was mocked by the main parties when it launched in March. They are not laughing now.

In the longer term, parliament may emerge leaner and cleaner. Certainly reformers who have spent decades fruitlessly arguing for stronger committees, weaker whips, stricter controls on outside earnings and greater transparency will win ground. Politically, David Cameron's relatively strong performance on the issue only reinforced the narrative of his inevitable rise. Tory claims—all those helipads, pools, courts, and moats—should have made him vulnerable. But sharp political instincts helped Team Cameron win on points, as Downing Street lost its nerve: a familiar result. It helped, of course, that Cameron could ask his wealthy MPs to pay money back. For less well-off Labour offenders the financial pain will be real. Nonetheless, the Tories are already plotting to seize the mantle of constitutional reform from Labour, and here Iain Duncan Smith may play an important role.

The deeper question is what kind of establishment will emerge to succeed the one Blair began to build a dozen years ago. If new Labour meritocrats in SW1 and City innovators in the Square Mile are losing their grip on power, it is not clear who will take their place. Blair implicitly promised to replace the grandees and squirearchy with a fresher, more humane, fairer-minded elite. An emblem of this modernity was Labour's controversial ban on foxhunting. It seems somehow appropriate that in the week when the expenses scandal peaked, the police announced that they would no longer attempt to enforce this law. It was, they said, a waste of public money.