Thursday, June 18, 2009

No expenses spared (3): Cast the first stone

The latest one to tumble is Kitty Ussher, junior Treasury minister, guilty of tax avoidance on the advice of her accountant. That's right, tax avoidance, not tax evasion. Should she have resigned?

This is getting a bit silly. It may be dishonest to flip homes to avoid tax, but if Kitty Ussher could do that and not fall foul of the Inland Revenue, then my feeling is that anyone with a half-decent accountant could - and probably does - do the same. How many UK citizens could face this kind of scrutiny and come away without a single blot on their record? Between tax avoidance, welfare 'cheating', buying smuggled cigarettes, paying builders in cash and so on, we are probably left with a handful of hair-shirts and little else. I myself, in the interests of transparency, can reveal that I've just received a 100 pound fine for late filing of my tax return (I don't owe any overdue tax, but just didn't get around to filling in the form). Doubtless if I went into politics that could be dragged out by the Daily Telegraph too. Who is going to cast the first stone? David Cameron, who paid down his first home's mortgage (which he paid) and then took out a new one on his second home (which we pay)?

The problem here is nothing to do with expenses, and everything to do with public dissatisfaction with politics more broadly. Britain is a particularly striking case of the decline of public connection with the political class: in the last election, little over 20% of the electorate actually voted Labour, yet Labour limps on with a comfortable majority in parliament. Much that it pains me, there is no alternative to the alternative. There has to be a change in government to refresh people's feelings of engagement with politics. However, David Cameron is unlikely to bring this. He is opposed to proportional representation for the same reason Labour has been - because it would deny him a pliant majority in parliament. The Conservatives won only 27% of the vote in the European elections - hardly a sign of enthusiasm for the government-in-waiting.

This citizen disengagement with politics appears to be a general trend in Europe (the US is enjoying a mini-renaissance for the moment). Here are some numbers that tell the story (the data are for Western European democracies):

Party members and party identifiers (those who feel 'close to' a political party) as a share of the electorate have declined consistently. The number of voters changing their vote between successive elections (volatility) has increased (suggesting declining satisfaction with incumbents). The number of people choosing not to vote (or who simply can't be bothered) has increased consistently across Europe (and in the UK rather dramatically).

So this is not just a British problem, although the British problem is starting to look pretty acute. This is the subject of my current research (Blyth, Hopkin, Pelizzo forthcoming). You heard it here first.