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Thursday, July 11, 2013 

Expecting the worst.

As the poll released by Ipsos-Mori this week makes clear, the great British public think pretty much the worst about our glorious United Kingdom. It's an island nation where 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant every year, 24% of the population are Muslims, 31% are immigrants, and 29% think more is spent on JSA than on pensions.  Now, we could blame this projected image of Britain on the media, and it would be perverse if they didn't take some of the responsibility.  The real reason most don't know though is far simpler: it's that they don't really care that much, and aren't interested.  Poll after poll suggests that while our experience of local services tends to be positive, we imagine that things must be worse elsewhere.  We don't know, so we expect the worst.  You could call it the British disease, except compared to the insularity of other nations, we're surely not that self-obsessed.

Everyone though, and I mean everyone, thinks the worst of politicians, regardless of how again by world standards our parliamentarians are very clean indeed.  They're only out for themselves, they feather their own nests, they claim expenses for second homes, and they're either funded by the nasty trade unions or the greedy hedge funds.  In this respect, I honestly can't imagine that the proposal by IPSA that MPs' pay should rise by around 9% in 2015 is going to have any great effect on their already dismal reputation.  In a way, it's just of a piece with what's going on at the top in both the public and the private sector: while wages for workers are either stagnating or just about making pace with inflation, the bosses continue to award themselves massive pay increases, whether they be council leaders or FTSE 100 CEOs.  This is how late capitalism has developed.

It doesn't matter then that as well as proposing this 9% increase, which will equate to a salary of around £74,000 a year, IPSA also recommends a further crackdown on expenses, the closing of an "unaffordable" pension scheme and the abolition of parachute payments for those who lose their seats, meaning in their estimation the overall cost to the taxpayer will be £500,000, as IPSA seem to believe politicians are operating in a vacuum.  They claim that they've taken into account the austerity being imposed by the same politicians they say should get a huge by comparison rise, but this is as good a time as any for the problem to be sorted out, as "there has never been a good time".  It might well be true that compared to those in similarly demanding jobs in the public sector MPs' pay has fell behind, yet this is hardly a reason for the difference to be made up all in one go.  If IPSA were instead proposing that pay only increase once the fixed 1% rise for the rest of the public sector is rescinded, and then by say, 3% or the equivalent a year rather than all at once, it's doubtful that we would have the situation today where most MPs are saying they won't take the rise. Which at least makes a change.

The issue of public trust and faith in politicians ultimately has very little to do with money.  What it comes down to is two things: competence and difference.  The real start of Gordon Brown's downfall wasn't so much the economic crash as it was the loss of the child benefit data discs by HMRC.  Tony Blair never recovered from the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, even though he won the next election partially due to the continuing uselessness of the Tories.  The situation as it stands now is that we have three parties with pretty much the same policies on the economy; while this didn't matter during the boom, it matters very much now we're still in the bust.  The coalition isn't competent in the slightest, but it doesn't matter because Labour now believes that to win in 2015 it has to offer the same harsh medicine that hasn't worked.  Labour thinks doing so will make them seem competent. It won't.  As long as politicians continue to aim for one of the two rather than both, trust simply isn't going to return, and we'll go on expecting the worst.  And frankly, why shouldn't we?

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