Ever since the General Election finished I’ve been mulling over the idea of restarting this blog. After all, I’ve enjoyed doing it over the years. Not so much when I’ve ended up being on the receiving end of a tirade of abuse or when people have misunderstood what I’ve written, but the good times have been when I’ve posted something that has prompted others to join a debate or when something I’ve said has been looked on approvingly by others. It’s not because I like that adulation, although who doesn’t like it when someone agrees with them, but it is reassuring that others feel the same way as you.
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing my review of the election campaign. I’ve also thought about writing about the coalition. I’m sure I will write about those things, but the thing that finally prompted me to write was my anger at the resignation of David Laws. So here we go…
One thing that I’m very aware of when writing about the recent news reports about David Laws is that I will come across as another person in politics defending their own. It’s inevitable that whenever you stick up for MPs generally, that people will write comments along the lines that I don’t understand the anger of ordinary people, that I live in a political bubble, or that I’m probably up to something myself. On the David Laws situation, there is the additional charge that I’m defending a Liberal Democrat when I would have condemned an MP from another party doing the same thing. I’d like to think I wouldn’t, and during the expenses scandal I made a big deal about us separating the genuinely corrupt MPs who were stealing from the taxpayer from those who had made a mistake (and I’ve also criticised on this blog in the past the incompetence of the parliamentary systems that make managing expenses so difficult for those trying to do the right thing, and the system so easy to play for those who are not). I’ve also argued that the attitude of some of the journalists and public is also hypocritical when they say that someone shouldn’t claim everything they are entitled to. After all, most people claim for whatever expenses they can when they are at work, the difference with MPs is that the nature of the job means that there are far more expenses than you would get in other jobs and the money originates with the taxpayer (as do many other people’s expenses, but no one scrutinises them in this way).
Much has been written over the last few days that sums up how I feel, and I will link to some of those other articles at the end of this post. But here’s a few thoughts of my own. Firstly though, it’s worth saying that I have never been a big David Laws fan. I have never doubted his ability, but to me as someone who is usually on the left of the party, he always seemed too much on the right of the party for my tastes. But the thing that has impressed me most recently was his very dignified resignation statement, which was clearly a difficult statement to make.
A frustration with all of this has been that people are trying to argue that this is not about David Laws being gay, but about him fiddling his expenses. I am sure that is the case with some of the people who have written about it, but I think the expenses issue plus his desire to keep his private life private has made this in to a much bigger story than it would have been. From what we know, and we shouldn’t prejudge the outcome of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, (although most of the media has, so why shouldn’t I), is that although David did something wrong, he didn’t actually make any financial gain from it. In fact, it actually cost less than it would have done if he’d done it right. The test I suppose is the advice that my employers always give to councillors, which is essentially that you should claim what you are entitled to if you need it to do the job properly, but also think about what an ordinary resident aware of all the facts would think it was reasonable for you to claim. Unfortunately all too often, MPs are being judged without the facts. Unfortunately in this case, David Laws personal circumstances are difficult to explain as they are unusual, but you can never fully understand people’s personal emotions and how they want to live their life, and we shouldn’t try to. Every relationship and home set-up is different and complex, and there is no right or wrong answer in each case, that’s one reason why I don’t agree with the Conservative preference for giving tax benefits for families where the parents are married, as that assumes there is only one right way to live.
What has particularly surprised me is the reaction to what has happened from people such as Ben Summerskill writing in The Observer and Ben Bradshaw on Twitter. Their take seems to be that this has nothing to do with homophobia as it clearly no longer exists, it’s all about David Laws being corrupt and being underhand in not wanting to be an out gay politician. Well where do I start. There is some truth in that being gay is no longer the bar to being successful in politics that it once was and that’s certainly the case in the Liberal Democrats. In fact, far from showing his homophobia, the recent criticism of Tim Farron MP for making a quip about being in a minority through being straight at a Lib Dem conference, shows that if anything people are relaxed about these things. But there are many other circumstances where it takes a brave man to come out, and one of those is with families. I know lots of people who are completely open about their sexuality within the Liberal Democrats, but have yet to tell their families. This is often because they’ve heard remarks made at home that makes them feel uncomfortable or perhaps because they know how much their parents want a traditional extended family. OK, so most families are unlikely to shun their offspring because they are gay, but it doesn’t necessarily make life easy. This issue in families can also apply in many other contexts, such as in the working environment. People may know that it is neither morally or legally acceptable for you to be homophobic, and as a result aren’t, but it doesn’t stop them making homophobic comments when they think there is no one gay there. If you are gay, but haven’t come out yet, how confident is that going to make you feel about taking that step? It’s all very well for people in the metrosexual, cosmopolitan world of London to say that no one cares about people being gay, (and even that assumes that most of London is just like the world that politicians move in when it’s not), it’s very different when it’s about your own family, or you live somewhere less urban or more traditional, or you work somewhere that is more macho and laddish (a topic I have covered before). In the end, this has become such a major issues because David Laws is gay, not because of what he did. If it had just been about expenses, he would probably have been admonished and made to pay back money and that would be it (unlike many other MPs who did far worse and have got off scot free). Surely in the real world, someone who makes a mistake on their expenses for all the right reasons, but who has not made money out of it, would be reprimanded and told to pay the money back, but wouldn’t lose their job over it. Kirstie Allsop (not someone I ever expected to quote) sums it up well with “Got lots of tweets saying versions of “you daft bint, this is about expenses, not sexuality”. Not it’s not, it’s about selling papers.”
Finally, I just want to link to a couple of very good articles that I think deserve to be read on the David Laws story. Firstly, an article by Julia Goldsworthy on Think Politics who writes from a personal point of view of putting your family in the political spotlight, rather than on the expenses issue itself. Secondly, an article by Lorna Spenceley who covers many aspects of the story in a far more coherent way than I have managed. The last word on this subject to Stephen Fry, who has a different take on MPs expenses: