The writer is director of the John Smith Centre at Glasgow University and a former leader of the Scottish Labour party
Dominic Raab was the first to say it on the morning media round. But fairly quickly the phrase “ultimately, the voters will decide” became the go-to line as British MPs took to the airwaves to defend their colleague Geoffrey Cox, who is facing a backlash for earning hundreds of thousands of pounds advising the British Virgin Islands.
The line is rooted in a calculation that “the voters” don’t expect any better from their politicians. Those who suggest the lobbying scandal that forced the Conservative politician Owen Paterson’s resignation (and the debate over outside interests) will force a crisis of trust in politics and politicians misunderstand our relationship with them.
Trust in politicians took a dip after the last economic crash and another slide since Brexit, but we’ve long had a low opinion of those who lead us.
Healthy scepticism is arguably a good thing. Countries with inordinately high levels of trust in their politicians tend to be dictatorships or other regimes we don’t aspire to imitate. However, the evidence is also clear that consistent low levels of trust in politicians leads to a culture where we expect laws to be broken and rules disobeyed.
It is true that Cox has increased his vote share in Torridge and West Devon since winning the seat from the Liberal Democrats in 2005, rising from 43 to 60 per cent in 2019. That’s perhaps better explained by the rise of the Conservative vote and the downward turn in Lib Dem fortunes over any appetite his constituents have for his legal work.
The data on trust is not that simplistic, though. While it is generally low, it is also unequal, with women and those on low incomes the least trusting of the people who lead them.
At the John Smith Centre, we study the relationship between the public and their politicians. Our latest report, written with the IPPR, highlighted that someone earning over £60,000 a year was three times more likely to believe that politicians were working in their interests than someone earning between £10,000 — £20,000 a year. Red wall MPs should be wary.
While the centre takes no position on whether MPs should have second jobs, we are interested in posing some questions about their primary ones.
Is being a member of parliament actually a job in any legally recognised sense? Is there a specification with the role and responsibilities clearly laid out? No. Do MPs get a set number of days of annual leave? No. Contracted hours? No. A clause saying they must work exclusively for their constituents and no one else? No. Do they have clear maternity/paternity rights and proper cover should they be on long-term sick leave? No.
If there’s an imbalance on the rights side of the ledger, it’s little surprise to see the responsibilities side falling short when it comes to discipline policy, expenses and conflicts of interest.
The question of second jobs and the growing concern about MPs taking on consultancy work that skirts the margins of the lobbying rules highlights a structural problem in our political system, which has long been in need of modernisation.
The system of proxy and remote voting brought in during the Covid-19 pandemic held great potential for diversifying the types of people who stood for parliament — allowing those with caring responsibilities to contemplate political life, for example. In a nationwide poll we conducted earlier this year on the public’s attitude towards remote parliaments and voting, 64 per cent thought it would mean that MPs in rural constituencies could do a better job. Sixty-one per cent thought it would lead to more women in parliament. We suspect their definition of “rural” did not extend to the British Virgin Islands.
If the government is banking on the idea that people hold politicians in such low regard that the recent revelations won’t move the dial significantly, they may be proved right. If there’s no price to be paid, the scandal can be ridden out. But when the prime minister is forced to deny he is leading a corrupt country on the world stage, it’s a clear sign that voters deserve, and should expect, better.