In The Great Stink of 1858 the Houses of Parliament hung lime-soaked sheets at the windows to disguise the stench of untreated sewage rising from the Thames. In the Great Stink of 2009 no such solution is available – for the stink comes from inside.
The endless revelations about MPs’ expenses have left the population disgusted and furious. Money was claimed for every imaginable frippery – from getting the moat cleaned to paying domestic servants, from massage chairs to buying champagne flutes and eighteen piece dinner sets. Outright fraud was officially sanctioned, or at least tacitly encouraged, with the Fees Office apparently telling MPs that it was fine to claim on mortgage debt that had already been repaid.
MPs tried to defend themselves by suggesting that it was their ‘low’ pay – £64,766 per year – which justified their excessive expenses! To the 90% of people who earn less than £40,000 a year this sounds obscene.
Against the background of a devastating economic recession – with millions facing unemployment and the gap between rich and poor wider than it was under Margaret Thatcher – the MPs’ expenses scandal has brought to the surface all of the accumulated anger, particularly of the working class. One BBC poll revealed, unsurprisingly, that 73% of the less skilled sections of the working class (social class DE) thought that MPs named and shamed in the newspapers over their expense claims should be forced to stand down from parliament, compared with 51% from social class AB.
Floating in their privileged Westminster bubble, MPs were completely detached from the reality of working class people’s lives, feelings and opinions. Now a blast of the hot fury of the working class has left them quaking. As Diane Abbott MP put it: “The public … want to see dead MPs hanging from lamp-posts”.
The fury is heightened because of the contrast between New Labour’s increase in repressive laws, and the MPs on the fiddle being able to walk away with no more than a slap on the wrist. In its twelve years in office New Labour has introduced 3,600 new laws. Ordinary people are hemmed in by endless petty bureaucracy from draconian parking fines, to hefty surcharges for being late paying your council tax, or the law coming down on you like a tonne of bricks if you claim slightly more benefit than you are strictly entitled to. ‘I was too busy’ is not an excuse which the courts or the councils accept.
All three establishment parties are now desperately looking for a way to appease ‘the mob’. For the first time since 1695, parliament’s Speaker, Michael Martin has been forced from office. This is blatant hypocrisy. The Speaker is in it up to his neck – but so are Cameron, Clegg, Brown and many other ministers and MPs. They hope that sacrificing the Speaker might save the rest of their sorry skins.
There is talk in the Labour Party of disciplining some MPs for ‘bringing the party into disrepute’. Ironically, this was the charge used to expel socialist MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields in the 1990s. Their ‘crime’ was standing up in the interests of the working class, including only taking the average workers’ wage. Their expulsion marked a qualitative step towards Labour becoming the party it is today, a party that stands in the interests of big business, and as Helena Kennedy QC said in The Guardian, where MPs “rubbed shoulders with the banking classes and bought into the culture of greed.”
Even if a handful of the worst offenders are expelled from the Labour Party, it will still be ‘too little too late’. This crisis is going to rumble on. The Labour Party is suffering most – some opinion polls suggest it could even come fourth in the European Elections – behind UKIP. Desperate to cling to power, Brown will try to avoid calling a general election before next May, but he could be forced to. However, all three establishment parties have been undermined, as has British ‘parliamentary democracy’ itself. This is a profound crisis for British capitalism. Confidence in the institutions through which it rules is at an historic low.
There is a comparison to be drawn with ‘mani pulite’, the ‘clean hands’ scandal in Italy in the early 1990s. As a result of the unveiling of the all-pervading corruption in Italian politics, the whole electoral system was changed. All four of the parties in government when the crisis broke were destroyed by it, and have since disappeared.
In Britain today the leaders of all three establishment parties fear that they could face a similar fate.
If a mass workers’ party existed in Britain today, with elected representatives living on the average wage of a worker, it would be able to act to channel the wave of anger that is breaking over the capitalist parties and use it to push forward workers’ interests.
Such a party would need to raise democratic demands, including:
- No MP to receive more than the average wage of a skilled worker.
- Abolish the House of Lords.
- MPs to be re-elected every two years.
- The introduction of proportional representation.
This crisis has revealed the contempt in which the capitalist politicians are held. Thirty years of neo-liberal policies – ceaseless attacks raining down on public services and the living conditions of the working class – have profoundly undermined and hollowed out the social base of all three capitalist parties. With New Labour now being a completely capitalist party, only the faintest echo remains of the old working class loyalty it once had. The Tories are ahead in the opinion polls, but this is based on revulsion at New Labour’s policies and not enthusiasm for those of the Tories. If the Tories are elected in the next general election, an attempt to carry out their programme – of even more brutal attacks on the working class than Labour has carried out – will face a revolt from the working class and large sections of the middle class. Their electoral support could quickly implode.
In the European elections on 4 June it is clear that, while many will stay at home in disgust, a large number of those who vote will be aiming to punish the establishment parties. Fearing where a protest vote will go, the capitalist media has consciously promoted the right wing populist party UKIP as the protest vote of choice, despite it having had an MEP jailed for corruption! The far-right racist British National Party has also received widespread coverage in the media. Their portrayal of the BNP as the ‘bogeyman’ of politics may encourage a section of working class people – furious with all MPs – to vote BNP.
The Green Party, with two MEPs, is also gaining a greater profile, with 11% in one opinion poll. The Greens are seen as standing on the left, but in reality in the European Parliament the European Greens have supported privatisation – including the Postal Services Directive, which is the law under which Royal Mail is being part-privatised.
However, there is a pro-working class slate standing in the European elections. No2EU – Yes to Democracy, has been initiated by the transport workers’ union, the RMT, and is supported by some of the most militant trade unionists in Britain today. Its candidates include leaders of the Lindsey strike, the Visteon car plant occupations, and Rob Williams – victimised convenor of Linamar car component plant. Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist, who for nine years was a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage, is heading the list in the West Midlands.
No2EU – Yes to Democracy stands against privatisation and in defence of workers’ rights and public services. If elected, its MEPs will not take a penny from the EU gravy train. No2EU offers an alternative in the European elections. It also represents the beginning of creating a workers’ alternative to the corrupt capitalist parties.
In the next general election Dave Nellist and other Socialist Party members will be standing on the basis of becoming ‘a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage’. The Socialist Party will encourage other trade unionists and community campaigners to do the same.
I remember when Dave Nellist was expelled from the Labour Party. How ironic that those that demanded his expulsion are now mired in such sleaze and corruption.