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Who will be the biggest winners from the Expenses Scandal?

May 10th, 2009

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Is now the perfect time to be an anti-establishment politician?

As the expenses row moves into Day 3, Saturday’s polls provided some answers to the question as to its impact on the political parties, as opposed to the individuals who’ve been in the spotlight. They also raised others.

The media narratives easiest to follow are those which focus on a single person or event: a parliamentary vote, an election, an individual’s misconduct or the like. One of the problems of the expenses scandal is the sheer number of people involved, without any one instance of improper behaviour really standing out.

The relentless nature of the revelations, the stream of largely unknown names and the monotony of the defence (“it was within the rules”) surely cannot fail to have an impact on how the political class in general is seen.

Labour have obviously come out of this worst so far because they’ve supplied most of the MP’s whose expense claims have been plastered across the media but it’s noticeable how quiet the Conservatives and Lib Dems have been in their condemnation of the behaviour. Presumably, they don’t have too much confidence about the position of some of their own MP’s either – and while some nationalists have been more vocal in their condemnation, problems may yet arise there where individuals have dual mandates leading to accusations of poor value for money comparing expenses against attendance.

For the Conservatives to make capital may not be too easy in any case. Quite apart from the potential revelations about their own MP’s (or peers), memories of the Sleaze Years in the 1992-7 parliament (which ought to seem quite tame in comparison) will inevitably get dragged into the argument with the net result that the public could well think that “they’re all at it”. Indeed, the polls suggested no further gain for the Conservatives, although they are at historically very high levels already.

The danger if no lead is taken by a Westminster insider against the abuses is that it will be left to those outside the system to spearhead the attack.

In 1997, the charge was led famously by Martin Bell, who unseated Neil Hamilton in his Tatton constituency. This year, the European Parliamentary elections in less than four weeks’ time give the voters much more choice and chance to register protests. The polls would tend to support the idea that minor parties will do well: both had the shares for ‘others’ rising, in the case of BPIX to no less than 15%.

Although there are local elections on the same day, the Euros offer greater scope for protest. For a start, local elections are more immediate and so it’s much easier for voters to see the impact of their votes, for example between a council run by the incumbent party or by a different one, reducing the incentive to use the vote as a protest. By contrast, hardly anyone knows the composition of the European Parliament, what it does or what impact it has. The number of voters who have local elections is also limited whereas the entire country has the chance to vote in the Europeans.

Perhaps even more importantly, because of the party list system, they also have a wide range of options to vote for and the threshold needed to be crossed to get a candidate elected is much lower than it would be under FPTP.

Who might the main beneficiaries be? My guess would be that it will be those outside ‘the club’. So far, if the media have been looking for someone to put the case against the goings on, they’ve not found that person or party. It’s quite possible they’re simply not looking because they’re enjoying the spectacle too much. However, it might also be that the mainstream media is itself too much part of the club – being as it is within the Westminster Village – and so refuses to look outside, partly because to do so would undermine its own privileged position.

That, however, may be a mistake. In the 1989 Euroelections, the Green Party scooped about 15% of the GB vote out of nowhere, something few foresaw. In 2004, it was UKIP who performed spectacularly, beating the Lib Dems into fourth place nationally and taking over 16%. UKIP have had their own problems with expenses and internal discipline in between, though how many of the more than two and a half million who voted for them last time will have noticed is another matter but both that and the reduction in the salience of Europe as a key issue to the public is likely to hit their support in June.

At the last Euroelection, neither main party was particularly popular in the wake of the Iraq War and the Lib Dems suffered from being pro-Europe but not putting the case confidently (so annoying both sides of the debate). The result was three votes in every eight going for parties outside the main three and more than one in two going outside the big two. Should we brace ourselves for something similar? The longer the expenses story runs, the more likely it is that we should.

On thing is for sure, after the polls and the expenses leaks, the 8/11 for Labour to poll less than 20% in the Euros looks increasingly good value. They were polling in the mid- to high-thirties in 2004, yet still only managed 22.6% at the election. Labour is now about ten points worse off in the polls compared to then.

David Herdson






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