It doesn’t take much digging to observe the British public’s disdain for politics. A perception of politicians as greedy and deceitful has been present for decades, but no single event has encapsulated this in the public consciousness more than the MPs’ expenses scandal.
In May 2009, The Telegraph published its investigation into the expenses claims of Members of Parliament, revealing widespread misuse of public funds. Up to one hundred MPs were found to have claimed for personal expenditure ranging from mortgage repayments to duck houses. The revelations marked the end of a four-year legal battle.
MPs resisted reporters’ requests for details of their expenditure, with both Labour and Conservative parliamentarians pursuing exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act; only after losing a High Court case did parliament concede. With the legal ground cleared, The Telegraph began to leak claims made from 2004-2008.
Exploitation of expenses was widespread, ranging from Andy Burnham’s £20 claim for an IKEA bathrobe to the £42,000 claimed by Barbara Follett for security patrols and art insurance. Abuse centred on the second home allowance, which allows non-London MPs to maintain a second home closer to Westminster when they are required in parliament. Some made publicly-funded renovations to their properties before subsequently selling them for a profit; others claimed for multiple homes despite living locally.
Most MPs insisted their claims were permissible: Peter Mandelson stated they ‘would not have been paid if they weren’t within the rules’. Yet the revelations’ aftermath saw imprisonments, resignations, deselections, and the repayment of nearly £500,000. Scrutiny of the lax guidelines, which did not question claims of less than £250 and provided up to £750 for televisions in second homes, saw condemnation of individual MPs spread to the entire establishment.
The scandal developed not just over the content of these revelations, but also the manner in which parliamentarians handled it. Parliament’s resistance to the publication of the claims, even in the face of a High Court challenge, suggests it had no intention to disclose these details of its own accord.
Apologies from all sides of the house did little to repair relations with the public. The timing of the leaks, in the midst of the recession, told the public that MPs were living by different rules to those they claimed to represent. In this sense, the key offence of the expenses scandal was not the greed of some MPs but rather the distance of the political class from the public.
This is the fertile soil in which the United Kingdom Independence Party has flourished. The unprecedented success of parties campaigning on an anti-establishment platform this May speaks for itself: the Greens, UKIP and the Scottish National Party won over 6 million votes.
The reenergised Labour party membership has rallied around Jeremy Corbyn, an ‘expenses saint’ who claimed just £8.75 for an ink cartridge from May-August 2015, hoping his purported authenticity will bring the party closer towards the public once again.
But, six years on, has anything substantially changed? Despite public outcry, it appears that the public now associates politics with sleaze to the extent that it is expected and new instances – such as the resignation of Maria Miller from the cabinet in 2014 over expenses fraud – provoked little new outcry. Nigel Farage has profited from discontent provoked by the expenses scandal by claiming thousands as an MEP despite rarely showing up to perform his duties.
Attitudes within Westminster are little changed: the reaction to the rise of anti-establishment politics has been characterised by scorn and denial, and the government has made every effort to distance itself from its campaign promises to enable constituents to recall MPs who abuse their power.
It is sadly ironic that a system introduced to widen political access to the working classes has become a symbol of corruption and deceit. But until Westminster as an institution learns the lessons of 2009 and works to address, rather than resist, the sources of public contempt for politicians, then expenses will continue to be a rallying point for the disenfranchised.