Cash for access

And so rolls on the juggernaut of government scandal.  Secret videos of Conservative co-treasurer Peter Cruddas selling access to David Cameron and George Osborne emerged at the weekend and the ramifications are far from over.  Cruddas has resigned but there is increasing pressure on Number 10 to disclose more specific details about party donations and who gained ‘access’ and when.

This is not the first scandal of its kind, and no party can claim any moral superiority when it comes to cash-for-something corruption.  In 1994, Neil Hamilton MP came under fire in cash-for-questions scandal involving Mohammed Al-Fayed. In 1997, eyebrows were raised when it transpired that Bernie Eccleston had donated £1million to the Labour Party, which soon after its election decided to relax laws on tobacco advertising in Formula 1. Labour was subsequently forced to return the donation. Most recently, in 2009, four Labour peers came under the spotlight due to cash-for-influence allegations.  This is not new news.

But when the scandal itself links directly to the highest offices in the government and the Conservative Party, questions must be raised again about the quality of democracy in this country.  It is just 2 years since the widespread expenses scandal tarnished our Parliament, and yet here we are again, with another example of how easy it is to find corruption in the offices of Downing Street.

Cruddas has quite rightly resigned.  But the questions this issue raises will continue to be asked.  At a time when trust in our elected officials is at an all-time low and electorate apathy is on the increase, how can party officials be so arrogant as to think this is acceptable practice?  Cameron’s apparent ignorance to the situation has yet to be proved true either way – time will tell.  His refusal, however, to reveal who has dined at Number 10 with him raises further issues of trust.  I understand the security aspect of revealing these names, and that yes, the Prime Minister does have a right to some privacy in his home.  But when private dinners are taking place in Number 10, by rights a state-owned taxpayer-funded residency, these arguments lose weight.  If our Prime Minister has nothing to hide, then this list should be revealed and any further allegations of impropriety put to bed.

The issues were discussed at length on BBC Breakfast this morning.  It was mentioned that trade union funding has much the same influence on the Labour Party, and that cash for access and influence is nothing new.  I agree with these sentiments, as a I detailed above.  I may be accused of being a Labour apologist for what I am about to say but  I think the distinction is important.  Political parties in this country depend on party donations.  Apathy is rife in our society.  Daily examples of ignorance and disillusionment can be found everywhere.  For those reasons alone, party membership numbers have plummeted and thus the argument for allowing party donations is understandable.  People, rightly, want to donate money to the causes they believe in.

Having said that, I do not see trade union donation and private Tory interests as one and the same.  Trade union donations and influence are surely a natural consequence of a political party founded on the principles of organised labour and working-class rights.  Without trade unions, there would be no Labour Party.  Many would argue that without millionaires there would be no Conservative party, but the Tory party itself was not formally founded to protect the interests of millionaires and business.  Property, prosperity etc, yes.  But there is no exclusive rights for millionaires and private business interests in the formation of the Conservative Party, despite what it may have become.  The Labour Party is born out of the trade union movement, so can we really argue that union influence is identical to that of what is happening now within the Tory party?  I think not.

Whilst that is not to say that the intentions of trade unions are always good, I would side with the unions any day – fighting for fair pay, workers’ rights and pensions – over the elite interests of millionaires that I should imagine frequent dinners with Cameron and Osborne.  But I am betraying my political leanings here, and I don’t think this is of great importance to this blog entry because it’ll simply descend into name-calling and yaboo politics, and we see enough of that in the House of Commons on any given day.

Clearly something must be done.  Suggestions were made on BBC Breakfast this morning that laws on political party funding must be changed.  Our electorate is disengaged from the political processes so fundamental to the smooth running of our country.  Trust has to be rebuilt in all arenas of our political system, and this must mean looking at every piece of legislation relating to the operation of our political parties and institutions.  The three major parties must be an example of clean, fair practice – the rest, I think, will follow.  If nothing changes and the shrouds of secrecy over Number 10 prevail, Joe Bloggs on the street will again see this as another example that Parliament has lost touch with the electorate, and that the only way democracy works in Britain is if you have a hefty bank balance and the right contacts.  We shall see.

Whipped in more ways than one

Yesterday’s controversial debate on whether we should hold a referendum on EU membership brought to light a whole range of problems within our political system.  Whilst many would like to discuss the Conservative party splits, or the credibility of the coalition government’s “e-petitions” which prompted this debate, I think it necessary to look at the whip system.

Both the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband issued ‘three-line whips’ to their respective parties ahead of this vote.  In basic terms, this required each MP to attend, vote, and toe the party line.  Or in Dave and Ed’s terms, vote no, and if you don’t, there’ll be serious repercussions.  Stewart Jackson, Conservative MP for Peterborough, rebelled against the three-line whip and has now lost his job as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  Adam Holloway, Conservative MP for Gravesham, resigned his position as PPS to David Lidington MP, Minister of State for Europe and NATO, in light of his rebellion against the three-line whip.  It remains to be seen how the other 79 Conservative rebels will be punished.

Arguments for adhering to three-line whips usually focus on loyalty to the party.  I watched an hour or so of the Europe debate yesterday, and I think it was Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, and a famous party rebel, who said that she understands the rationale behind whips.  After all, it is your party who select you as a parliamentary candidate, support your campaign and give you the resources and tools to win an election.  But should this rationale elevate loyalty to party above the loyalty to your constituents?  Kate Hoey disagreed, and I disagree too.

The foundation of representative democracy is, well, representation.  Whilst Members of Parliament will ultimately make their own voting decisions based on a number of factors, one of the most important of these factors must be constituent opinion.  Your party may have made your candidacy possible, but it is your constituents who queued at the ballot boxes and put a cross next to your name.  This is not to say that all Members who voted with their party are careerists or disloyal to their constituents; I believe many of them simply did not support the motion.  But it is downright wrong for party leaders to coerce their Members into voting a certain way simply to make a political point, especially on an issue as salient as European Union membership.

Regardless of my own opinions on the EU – for what it’s worth, I am largely pro-EU – when opinion polls are stating that 70 per cent of voters want a referendum on Britain’s EU membership (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/24/eu-referendum-poll-uk-withdrawal?newsfeed=true), it is against the very core of democracy to quash dissent and enable a three-line whip.  How can we ignore these polls?  How can Dave and Ed look at these polls and do the very thing that would make sure this motion would not pass?

But perhaps this is yet another problem of representative democracy.  We have handed over our consent for this system, and created a monster.  We have sat back for too long and remained largely ignorant to some of the more nuanced political engineering that goes on within the halls of Westminster.  If any good can come of this protracted debate, I hope it is this: that we can take another long look at our political system and say ‘no, this is not right’.  We will hand over our votes and our consent to be governed, but there are some issues – such as membership of the EU and its wider impact on British sovereignty – that are simply too big, too important, for us to let our representatives kowtow to the party leadership.

Never was a truer word spoken than when Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” 

Drugs

I read with interest the Metro article on the Lib Dem conference and its vote on their drug policy.  They have voted – and are now bound to the result of that vote – to legalise cannabis for personal use and “undermine the supply chain”, thus removing the criminal element.  This is now official party policy.

I despair of the debates we have in Britain re: drugs.  I can see both sides of the issue: legalise, and remove the criminal element.  Legalise, and legitimise recreational drug use. Sadly politicians rarely go for a multi-partisan approach.  Regardless of my own views on drug laws, I am disappointed when politicians jump on the “you support drug users” argument purely because they disagree with policy, and use it for sensationalist political gain.  I quote: “Conservative MP Charles Walker dismissed the Lib Dem vote. ‘If they think taking heroin and cocaine and smoking skunk is OK that’s up to them but the government and most people in Britain do not agree,’ he said.” (Read more: http://www.metro.co.uk/news/875846-personal-drugs-like-cocaine-and-heroin-should-be-legal-say-liberal-democrats#ixzz1YPGe2nkK).  I also despair when politicians use statements like “most people” – can you prove you asked every citizen in this country and produce evidence to corroborate this?

Instead of simply disagreeing and articulating a counter-argument, Mr Walker goes for the cliched response.  Yes, because clearly what the Lib Dems are saying is we should legalise all drugs and freely buy heroin, crack and acid!  Party down!

*insert sigh*.

Voting

This blog seems to be turning into a series of rants about what’s wrong with the British political system today.  Yesterday’s blog got me thinking about voting and the problems we’ve experienced in this country, which invariably relate to disillusionment and ignorance.

Voting turnout has been on the decline since the early 1990s, and dropped to a historic low in 2001 when turnout of registered voters was just 59.4 per cent.  In 2005, this figure rose to 61.3 per cent, and in 2010 rose again to 65.1 per cent.  Turnout for the recent referendum on the voting system – 42.2 per cent – exposed a deep apathy  in our country towards the country’s political system.   Many people expressed confusion about the referendum, its purpose and its consequences.  This is a complex issue and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.  But how can we ask our citizens to vote on electoral reform when so many don’t even understand what electoral reform is?

I doubt we’ll ever see a return to the days when turnout reached high percentages during the 1950s.  But I think there is one fundamental change to be enacted within our education system which could improve both voter turnout and wider political engagement.

Quite simply, some form of politics/sociology/citizenship module needs to become compulsory in secondary schools.  I remember doing some work on citizenship during my high school years, alas it was neither memorable nor in-depth.  Young people need to be taught from an early age about the basics of politics – our institutions, their history, elections, political parties, and wider concepts within the political echelon (ideas of freedom, equality etc).  No doubt this will lead to criticisms along the lines of “brainwashing kids” and encouraging them to lean left or right depending on the personal political views of their teacher.  Steps would need to be taken to keep this in check.  I know from experience how this can happen.  My A Level politics teacher was unashamedly left wing and this did have an effect on our class.  By the time we left college, I would say 80% of our class had left or centre left views.

Not all pupils will enjoy this, and many will hate it and find it boring, but kids say the same things about a variety of school subjects.  I loathed maths (and still do).  But this knowledge has to be provided, at least.  Should pupils choose to reject it, then that is their prerogative.  We tried.  We gave them some basic knowledge about what politics means and how it affects our day-to-day lives.  Until we offer this as a mandatory part of secondary school education, we will continue to fail future generations.