Weekend Culture- When Betting on Politics Backfires: Lessons from The Gambling Scandal”

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As gamblegate stretches into its second week, it seems there is no end to the revelations about MPs misbehaving at the bookies. And naturally, as when any significant ethical misconduct is in the news, it didn’t take long for this one to be equated with the expenses scandal.

Partygate was trundling into its sixth month when we were asked: “will this prove as damaging as the expenses scandal?”. Even the little remembered – except by me – 2015 election expenses saga, in which parties were accused of going over campaign spending limits, at one point threatened to “become like expenses”.

A BBC documentary even had a go at suggesting the expenses scandal led to Brexit – though rather unsuccessfully – and caused me to (somewhat grumpily) argue in my book that if you squint hard enough you can make anything about Brexit these days.

What was the expenses scandal, again?

The expenses scandal, for those requiring a quick refresher, broke in 2009. It was an extraordinary set of revelations, drip-fed to the public by the Daily Telegraph, on the many different ways members of parliament were interpreting their right to claim personal expenses from public funds. Some were downright illegal – such as claims on false invoices. Others were technically legal but ethically dubious, such as claims to recover the costs of cleaning moats and repairing helipads or buying biscuits and trouser-presses.

The reporting went on and on, and, as former academic Alexandra Kelso said, “day after turgid day … seemed to confirm the very worst beliefs of those who are cynical about British politics and the politicians who engage in it”.

Is this starting to sound familiar? If it doesn’t yet, it could still. Academic Phil Cowley and writer Matthew Bailey have outlined the legion of ways in which the British people, including MPs, have been betting on politics for more than 100 years.

In recent days, journalists Robert Peston, and Lewis Goodall have suggested the practice of candidates placing a bet on themselves to lose is more common than we might think.

Goodall even suggested that “it’s actually a bit of a political tradition … almost a bit of gallows humour”.

Likewise, using expenses to “top up” your salary as an MP was, prior to the 2009 scandal, a common practice and an open secret in parliament.

So, in both cases, we have a practice which is more common than we think, and which is not considered a massive problem in political circles – until the public finds out.

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It’s unlikely, however, that the gambling scandal will end up as large and all-encompassing as expenses. While betting on the outcome – or date – of an election is outrageous (and stupid and, yes, corrupt) you are not in effect defrauding the taxpayer. That seems to me to be a big distinction. With the best will in the world, it seems silly rather than sinister.

The timing is also important. We are five weeks into an election campaign that has seemed like a foregone conclusion since well before the starting gun was even fired. It is, to all intents and purposes, the campaign’s silly season. In a matter of days, the focus will shift to the actual election itself – and (failing some kind of utterly absurd turnaround in fortunes) what is expected to be the first Labour government in the UK for 14 years.

That’s not to say that gamblegate won’t matter or that it won’t have any kind of causal tail. Labour has hinted at – and made vague manifesto commitments to – a review of ethics and standards. The pre-election revelations may embolden Starmer to pursue these.

We might also see some targeted regulation on politicians betting. It doesn’t seem a particular over-reaction to this affair to consider whether politicians should be allowed to bet on races that they are a part of, even if it’s paltry sums we’re talking about.

A cautionary tale

In both the expenses scandal and gamblegate, things got pretty ridiculous, pretty quickly. Insider betting, is obviously wrong – and illegal. Just as submitting false invoices is obviously wrong – and illegal. An “emotional hedge” against oneself in an election is weird, sure, but probably less problematic in the grand scheme of things.

The nadir of the expenses scandal, was the absurd categorising of MPs as saints and sinners, based largely on how much an they had claimed. The monetary amount became shorthand for whether someone was a “good” politician or not.

There are a multitude of reasons, not least basic geography, why one might claim more expenses. Those MPs representing constituencies far away from London may need more, for example. And, not for nothing, not claiming an expense might mean that you are doing a pretty shoddy job for your constituents.

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These kinds of scandals take hold in the public imagination because they are easy to understand and they confirm our worst suspicions about politicians and politics. As former Labour MP Tony Wright put it: “Policy issues might be complicated, but fiddled expenses [are] not.” But this doesn’t mean we should create a playground pile-on and treat every case as the same. The risk there is that we end up embedding negative perceptions further.

In this instance the expenses scandal should serve as a cautionary tale. Not because it caused Brexit (it didn’t even really cause MPs involved to lose their seats in 2010). Instead, it shows how genuinely scandalous things can metastasise into the trivial, so that things that probably shouldn’t matter end up destroying careers and undermining democracy. When this process starts, it’s probably best to catch a breath before adding further fuel to the fire.The Conversation

Sam Power, Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Sussex


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