Mark Oaten’s three-point test for ‘scandal’ resignations

by Stephen Tall on June 7, 2008

Former Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten writes in today’s Guardian about the ever-present question: when does ‘scandal’ in an individual’s private life prevent them from undertaking public duties? Describing privacy as “a fluid concept”, Mark suggests

we can apply a simple three-point test.

1) Has the person broken the law? If this has happened, a person’s position is untenable.

2) Is the individual guilty of hypocrisy? If someone preaches against a certain act or way of life, and is caught doing the same thing, it’s hard to have much sympathy. Look at Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor. Calls for his resignation following his involvement with prostitutes are more justified when we consider his campaigning against prostitution.

3) Do the individual’s actions invite blackmail or show a total lack of judgment? This is the hardest question to answer because it’s more subjective than the others. I recognise in my case I made a grave error of judgment which is why I resigned. But to be honest I was so shattered by the whole experience that the thought of continuing didn’t appeal.

Do you agree? What criteria would you draw up?

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I must say I found Oaten’s article fairly embarrassing. Everyone is entitled to a fresh start and to move on, but by writing this stuff Mark just keeps turning back to it. It’s like he’s even more fascinated by his actions than we are. I think he should resign as MP and move abroad, which I thought he was going to do anyway. I wish him well.

by Laurence Boyce on June 7, 2008 at 12:58 pm. Reply #

I don’t agree on “broken the law”. It depends which laws. Speeding is not something that I would call for a resignation over (lots of people). Nor was using a mobile phone whilst driving (Liam Byrne). Similarly when Rob Marris walked over a white van that was criminal yes, but not cause for his removal as an MP.

Hypocrisy is a strong example as it undermines someone’s crediblity. However, we should not aim to have a system of rules for “resignations”.

The main accountability of politicians should be to the voters.

by John Hemming MP on June 7, 2008 at 2:43 pm. Reply #

“Strength of public feeling” would be a test I would add.

by Paul Walter on June 7, 2008 at 3:40 pm. Reply #

I don’t agree with Laurence: I saw Mark speak about his book on coalitions the other day and he made the point that he could have written a book about his life and problems which would have sold in truckloads, but instead he chose to write about something political which interested him, but which will sell only to a few political anoraks. It seems entirely appropriate that he should have been asked to write an article about Max Mosley’s troubles.

by tony hill on June 7, 2008 at 4:17 pm. Reply #

. . . he could have written a book about his life and problems . . .

We could always suggest appropriate titles for that book, it being a quiet afternoon . . .

by Laurence Boyce on June 7, 2008 at 4:26 pm. Reply #

I think the point that is being missed here is that we expect public figures to represent all of our virtues and suffer from none of our vices….i’m not altogether sure that is healthy…i’d add to Oaten’s criteria perhaps the most important one of the lot…

*Does the issue seriously impede the individuals ability to due the job they are being asked to do….

by Darrell on June 7, 2008 at 9:05 pm. Reply #

I do expect my MP to be better than me. I don’t feel it’s too much to ask really.

Anyway, I can’t do much better than, “Without a Paddle”.

by Laurence Boyce on June 7, 2008 at 9:43 pm. Reply #

Darrell’s point is spot on, in my opinion. The whole “problem with politics” is not that the average politician is worse today than 20, 50 or 100 years ago, but that we’re now more likely to know our politicians’ flaws. We’ve not adjusted to the fact that we shouldn’t expect our politicians to be messianic figures with the answer to everything (e.g: Blair 1997, Cameron’s pitch now). A healthy democracy would stop searching for the messiah, and start focusing more on judgements and ideas.

Of course, the only people who will change this are voters ourselves. As long as the Blair/Cameron pitch works, parties will ape it.

by Richard H on June 7, 2008 at 9:44 pm. Reply #

Well Laurence I am penning a blog on this so dont want to steal too much thunder from it but the simple question is why??

by Darrell on June 7, 2008 at 9:55 pm. Reply #

Well because given a constituency of several thousand from which we intend to draw but one person, it is surely not too much to expect above average attributes all round.

by Laurence Boyce on June 7, 2008 at 10:10 pm. Reply #

Well I work in travel and so you’d expect me to have a working knowledge of what I sell and that would be fair enough so on one level what you say is non-controversial…but i wouldnt expect my personal life or sexual proclivities to be one of the criteria you used when judging my ability to furnish you with a decent holiday because the two things are totally unrelated….

by Darrell on June 7, 2008 at 10:15 pm. Reply #

Well if you want to focus upon performance, then there’s at least one measure by which Mark Oaten has failed dismally. At 33.6%, he has the worst voting record in the House of Commons of any Lib Dem MP.

Another MP who should probably stand down is Charles Kennedy who has not voted in the chamber for a whole month.

by Laurence Boyce on June 7, 2008 at 10:24 pm. Reply #

Well if that’s what they were being attacked on then maybe I would have more sympathy with the attackers….but you do pick up on a very important point, that focusing on the personal detracts from a serious focus on the political…

Given that both the people you mention have however had personal issues (which in a normal workplace they would receive support for, or at least they should) it is perhaps not surprising that there ‘work perfomance’ has suffered….but then again if i had problems at my workplace I wouldnt be pilloried on prime time tv and the front of every national newspaper would i….something that is bound to make these issues worse…

by Darrell on June 7, 2008 at 10:34 pm. Reply #

Well that’s the point. It’s not a normal workplace. If it was, Kennedy and Oaten would be sacked for failing to show up. So given that there’s about a thousand people who would willingly take their places, I think they might consider moving over.

by Laurence Boyce on June 7, 2008 at 10:40 pm. Reply #

But Laurence that is definatly *not* what they were being attacked for and I have to say you know that full well….if it was a normal workplace then the reason Oaten resigned wouldnt be an issue because it wouldnt be known…and it would be the same with Kennedy unless it became apparent ‘in the work place’….

Besdies if it was a ‘normal’ situation what would be the point of throwing them onto the dole where depression would probably keep them for a long time….

by Darrell on June 7, 2008 at 10:46 pm. Reply #

I don’t understand. They’ve got problems. I’m very sorry. But it appears to be affecting their performance. And I expect Lib Dem MPs to vote in the chamber. So in my view they should go. As a matter of interest, does anyone happen to know where Kennedy is?

by Laurence Boyce on June 7, 2008 at 10:56 pm. Reply #

Well i’m pretty sure Kennedy was there when he was leader of the Lib Dems and so was Oaten when he was on the front bench…both were forced out of those positions for personal issues not because they weren’t attending…i can kind of understand them feeling stigmatised now….

by Darrell on June 7, 2008 at 11:02 pm. Reply #

Laurence, Mark made it very clear when he stood for election in 1997 that were he elected he was not going to be the sort of MP who hung around the Commons all night waiting to troop through the lobby to vote on obscure clauses about Scottish devolution. At the by-election the opposition tried unsuccessfully to make an issue of this, and he has been re-elected twice since then because he was, and still is, a superb constituency MP who believes that it is more important to be working in the constituency than playing party political games in Westminster. That is not to say that it would probably not have been better had he acknowledged his unhappiness before 2005 and not sought re-election, but knowing when it is time to move from the known to the unknown can be a very difficult decision to make.

by tony hill on June 8, 2008 at 12:35 am. Reply #

Tony Hill,

If Mark was not the kind of politician who wanted to hang around Westminster, then why did he put himself forward for the Party leadership? And if Mark was unhappy with his lot as an MP in 2005, why did he try to extend his involvement, first by accepting the Home Affairs brief, then by standing for the leadership?

I have long had issues with some of Mark’s views, and have found him too PR orientated. But he does have his good points, his assiduousness as a constituency MP being foremost among them.

What has happened is a tragedy, both for Mark and his family and for Winchester. But I do think Mark has made the problem worse by his subsequent behaviour.

I don’t feel that having affairs with male prostitutes should necessarily be a resignation issue. People have done far worse and kept their jobs. What really did make me cringe, however, was Mark’s attempt to make capital out of it by talking about his private life to the media and doing public “therapy”.

Did Mark really and truly do what he did because he was upset about going bald, or because he got bored being an MP? Or is this just the kind of ludicrous garbage that “therapists” make a fat living peddling?

Having said all that, I agree with Mark that Max Mosley should not lose his job. It is not necessary to be a whiter-than-white saint to run motor racing. And moreover, I am intensely unwilling to give the power to force a public figure from office to a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch.

by Sesenco on June 8, 2008 at 1:00 am. Reply #

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