March 9, 2010 / 12:03 PM / 10 years ago

Voters seek revenge over expenses scandal

REDDITCH, England (Reuters) - Voters in the upcoming election are set to punish those shamed in the parliamentary expenses scandal, with Labour likely to be most vulnerable.

The Big Ben clock tower at the Houses of Parliament is seen next to a sculpture, in Westminster, in central London May 15, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville

“It still rankles with me because the ordinary working people are trying to find a job, and if they find a casual one, and they put a little through the expenses they are arrested,” said Keith Spencer, 65, a retired electrician and recent Labour voter, in Redditch, Worcestershire.

Those most at risk from the fall-out from the scandal in the election expected on May 6 will be MPs defending wafer-thin majorities in marginal seats.

Hundreds of politicians from all the main parties claimed excessive expenses ranging from the trivial, such as toilet paper, to the ludicrous, including moat-cleaning.

The disclosures last year incensed a public trying to cope with the threat of job losses or pay freezes in the deepest recession in decades.

The wounds are due to be reopened this week when three MPs, all Labour, and a Conservative peer, are due to appear in court charged with false accounting linked to their expenses. All deny wrongdoing.

Labour, trailing in opinion polls behind the Conservatives, is predicted to be particularly affected by any disenchanted voters staying away from the ballot box because those who tend to make the effort to vote are those who want change.

Those to gain from the scandal could be fringe parties, largely untainted by the scandal because most do not have seats in parliament. However, it is not clear whether those votes would translate into seats under the first-past-the-post system.

Many caught up in the affair have decided not to stand again but one determined to fight on is Jacqui Smith, MP for Redditch, who was one of the most high-profile casualties.

Smith, who has a majority of less than 3,000, resigned as Home Secretary shortly after it was revealed her husband submitted a bill for pay-per-view pornography.

People in Redditch, just outside of Birmingham, have seen unemployment jump 19 percent during the past year.

Birmingham was long the manufacturing heartland but its once-mighty car industry is much diminished, with MG Rover and LDV joining the roll-call of casualties in recent years.

Despite many thinking Smith has been a good MP since she won her seat in the Tony Blair landslide in 1997, locals doubt she will be re-elected.

“I do not think people will be supporting her,” said builder Graham Davies, 65. “It will be a protest vote. People feel let down.”

Smith herself said she would be surprised if she won. “In the opinion polls I am the underdog here,” she told Reuters.

The seat is one the Conservatives would expect to capture if they are to win a majority in the next parliament.

Malcolm Hall, leader of the local council’s Liberal Democrats, said Smith’s expense claims “tend to stick in the mind, but she was by no means the worst offender.”

“She will obviously keep some support among the party faithful but I still think it is such a narrow margin at a time when Labour is deeply unpopular.”

Labour has been behind in the opinion polls because of the recession and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recently it has narrowed the gap, suggesting a hung parliament with no one party having an overall majority.

Smith said expenses will have an impact on turnout across Britain, but added that while voters may take a long look at the alternatives, they will ultimately see they come up short.

“They will look at others — they want to see something fresh,” she said. “But I do not think they will look for long if they do not have the answer to critical questions.

Editing by Steve Addison

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