The scandal surrounding MPs expenses has angered the voting public. So how can confidence in Parliament be restored? Here, we asked advertising gurus, branding experts and cool-headed commentators for tips on how MPs can pick up the pieces.
Max Clifford, publicist
“I have never known a time when the public are so utterly disgusted by politicians full stop. It’s frightening. And it goes right across the board, even those who haven’t been exposed have been tarnished. Perhaps the most damning thing, for me, is the fact that they fought so hard to stop the information coming out. Clearly they knew they were doing something very wrong. That shows that what is happening now is them attempting to publicly do the right thing for all the wrong reasons. So the fact that they are now grovelling and apologising has absolutely no credibility. They’re simply doing this because they have to. What does that say about whatever else they might be up to behind our backs?
“Everything now has to be totally transparent. I would advise those who have sinned to pay back the money. They need to be seen to be punished, and there are different degrees to who has offended. The worst offenders should be sacked. With the others, the equivalent amount they have fiddled should be given to a charity of their constituents’ choice, and they must publicly be seen to be delivering that cheque. It needs to be an open act of repentance.”
Lance Price, Labour’s former director of communications
“Restoring public confidence will take more than a quick fix behind closed doors. We need something like a truth and reconciliation commission to give democracy a fresh start. The parties can nominate members but the majority must be from outside politics. Meetings should be held in public and broadcast live on the internet. Let it begin with MPs allowances, pay and other benefits. Lay everything bare, propose a new system and put it to the people in a referendum to coincide with the next general election. If the parties can’t agree, let them offer the voters a choice of options. Then move on to the size and composition of the Commons and the Lords, and the method of their election, and put that to the people within two years. Wide consultation including citizens’ juries, online forums and extensive media discussion is essential, but so too is a fixed timetable and total transparency.”
Mark Borkowski, brand publicist and author of the Fame Formula
“If I were a politician, I would be declaring every cent, putting all my accounts online and turning to social media to feed my views to the voters so they know exactly what I was doing to regain their trust. The public demands transparency with politicians as much as they do with brands and celebrities. Any party can make ground if they can offer up an MP who has not had his or her head in the trough.
“Political parties need to regain the agenda, which they are letting the media take and run with at the moment. To do this, they need to more than stand up and say sorry. They need to offer discourse and transparency. Individuals need to tour the country, set up local public meetings and face up to the country’s anger.
“Failing that, they need to follow Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher’s examples and make use of Twitter – even though watching most politicians using social networking is as bad as watching a Dad dancing at a wedding.”
Martin Bell, former independent MP
“How an MP can regain public trust:
1. If you have done wrong, never say: ‘What I did was within the rules’. Be penitent and throw yourself on the mercy of your constituents.
2. Buy your own bath plugs. It is the little things that upset the voters most.
3. Use common sense. I call it the Knutsford Guardian principle. Whatever you claim, whichever way you vote, whatever you say in the House or out of it, even where and with whom you take your holidays – how will it look on the front page of your local weekly?
4. Support Douglas Carswell’s campaign for a new Speaker. The present Speaker Michael Martin tried to block the publication of MPs’ expenses. We now know why. He is so evidently part of the problem that he cannot be part of the solution.”
Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat MP who has emerged from the expenses scandal relatively unscathed
“There are two big steps MPs will have to take. Firstly, they must accept that they now operate in a world of disclosures and openness, and that it is very foolish to try to block any Freedom of Information requests. There will be more scrutiny, and the public will expect them to be more open.
“Secondly, they should stop all this petty tribal wrangling. MPs will have to all agree with the reform agenda, based on recommendations by Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and agree to implement it without any quibbling or foot-dragging.”
Phillip Knightley, author of An Affair of State, a study of the Profumo affair, which was arguably the last time Parliament was in such crisis
“The scandal over MPs expenses won’t be over until they have found a good scapegoat. John Profumo was the guilty man in the affair that bore his name because he lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with Christine Keeler and had to resign. But the public was unhappy with this outcome because Profumo seemed a decent chap and MPs are only human. It was not until Lord Denning blamed society osteopath Stephen Ward for everything – and Ward obligingly committed suicide – did the affair come to an end. Who could be the scapegoat in this case? An MP won’t do because they have only followed the rules and there has always been a culture of expenses fiddling in Britain – ask any journalist. The best candidate is whoever missed the chance to fix the whole sorry system by introducing a fixed expenses allowance. Meanwhile in our eyes, MPs are the new fat cat bankers.”
AC Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College and author of several books including What is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live
“The rules for expenses should be redrawn by an independent body, not by MPs themselves. Thereafter, expenses claims should be subject to rigorous scrutiny by an independent committee. Expenses should cover the costs incurred by MPs in the conduct of essential and necessary work as MPs, and for nothing else: so maintenance of homes, furnishings, cleaning services, etc, should come out of their own pockets, as with the rest of us. Parliament should buy or build a block of flats for non-London MPs to live in with their families while they occupy a seat in parliament, to stop the business of MPs buying, furnishing, refurbishing and letting their own London homes. To merit our respect and trust, MPs must be honourable; as Socrates said, the best way to deserve honour is actually to be what we pretend to be.”
Claire Beale, editor of Campaign magazine
“Saying sorry is quite a fashionable, positive thing to do at the moment. M&S is running an apology campaign following its bra cup-size furore (“We boobed”). As consumers we’re more comfortable with people apologising and more accepting of an apology as a mission statement.
“It’s quite a different thing, however, to follow up saying sorry with something really positive. M&S have reduced the prices of their bras, and are trying to turn their error into a positive. Each of the main parties has an advertising agency. If I was Cameron or Brown, I’d be talking to my marketing advisor to sort out a policy strategy together. There’s so much negative PR to counter that it’s going to take a lot of marketing to come back.
“If I was one of the clean MPs, I’d see this as an amazing opportunity to come out and cover themselves in glory. Somehow, I’m sure they’ve been asked to keep a lid on that sort of thing for now.”
Dr Frank Luntz, Republican consultant, pollster and a communication advisor to a dozen Fortune 100 companies
“When it comes to ethical lapses, words don’t work. When public money is abused by public politicians, there is no excuse, no justification, no explanation that will satisfy an angry electorate. In Britain, as well as in America, accountability is the single most important character trait in an elected official, and failure to behave in an accountable fashion represents a breach in trust that cannot be repaired.
“All three parties have to face the public wrath, and all three party leaders have a lot of explaining to do. But it is up to the PM to make the tough choice: publicly acknowledge the ethical lapses and remove every offender, or face full responsibility for every unethical action. Either fire people – by asking for their resignation – or be prepared to be fired by the people come election day.
“Public, personal acceptance of responsibility is the only solution to restore credibility. Either remove the cancer, or the patient – the Brown Government – dies.”