Party conference season in Britain has wound up, but politics hasn’t faded from the news. This week it’s the MPs’ expenses scandal again, with persistent reports that MPs are planning to resist the demands of Thomas Legg, the senior bureaucrat appointed to audit claims, that they repay large sums of money granted for dodgy expenses.
This just shows, of course, that there is nothing politicians will not sacrifice for financial gain, including their own political interests. We’ve seen this repeatedly in Australia in the debates (or more often lack of debate) over MPs’ superannuation. But it also helps to explain the peculiar state of British politics in general, and why, just possibly, a Conservative victory next year might not yet be a foregone conclusion.
The most surprising thing I’ve found in Britain this year is the lack of enthusiasm for David Cameron’s Conservatives. Although they enjoy a commanding lead in the polls, there is no sign of any real popular affection to match. Compare 1997, when Tony Blair and Labour were the beneficiaries of discontent with the Tories, but also had a real following of their own. That positive element, so far, just isn’t in evidence this time around.
The expenses scandal offers a clue as to why: the public is fed up with politicians in general. Labour, being the incumbents, will bear the brunt of their anger, but it’s not fundamentally tied to a particular party.
That doesn’t mean the election won’t be decisive: a similar lack of enthusiasm was evident in relation to John Howard in 1996. But despite the doubts of many commentators (including this one), anger against the incumbents was enough to deliver him a landslide victory. As Wayne Goss famously put it, people were waiting for Labor with baseball bats in their hands — and the British seem to have similar sentiments towards Gordon Brown.
But the expenses scandal also poses a particular danger for the Tories, because it highlights the gap between politicians and the ordinary voter. The Tories are fundamentally the party of privilege and for them an attack on privilege is always a risky business.
It’s common knowledge — but in a way that doesn’t fully dawn on you until you see it in action — that Britain remains a highly class-conscious society: class antagonism can be a factor where it would be negligible in most other developed countries.
Despite his progressive positions in many areas, Cameron is bidding to become the most identifiably upper-class Prime Minister for more than 40 years. Over the next few months, Labour will put a lot of effort into reminding people of that fact, and the expenses scandal, with its underlying them-versus-us message, might just play into its hands.