I have been intending to write this post all week but then last night in Bradford West George Galloway wrote it for me. I am not claiming any amazing powers of foresight nor would I anyway seek to detract from his quite clearly stunning win. No, the main story this week should have remained the one about ‘cash for access’ and what sort of perversion of democracy we have managed to drift into in our country. Our systems need reform and this week’s event should not be treated as maverick events that can be conveniently blamed on a weak opposition leadership. Much more is at stake than that.
The post I intended to write would have started by noting that the revelations about ‘cash for access’ published last weekend by The Sunday Times were published almost a year to the day after they authored a similar sting story against three members of the European Parliament – the so-called ‘cash for amendments’ story. I found myself at the centre of that episode, which thankfully did not concern any British MEPs, because I was responsible, as a Vice President of the Parliament, for Transparency. Prior to those events I had asked for the creation of a high level working group to look at these and other issues. I was refused. I was told there was no appetite amongst the main political groups. Then of course after the ‘cash for amendments’ articles it was suddenly all the rage and we had a working group led very admirably by our President.
As a result of this and previous work I was involved in with the European Commission, the European Parliament now has a clear regime for ‘interest representatives’ (lobbyists) and the Parliament has a strict new code of conduct for MEPs. It is good to note that these models, especially that relating to lobbyists, are now being copied by governments around Europe. Of course, there is an exception: the UK. Such proposals as do exist here are a mess. A democratic political process requires that politicians have input from all kinds interest groups when making policy and law. Lobbying, when it is conducted fairly and openly, is a necessary and important part of the democratic process; politicians cannot do their job without it. Most lobbying organisations I encountered in Brussels operated to high professional standards. The problems start, however, when lobbying gets mixed up with the issue of so-called ‘consultancy’ arrangement with individual politicians or, as we have just experienced in London, the blurring of donations to political parties and access to their government decision makers.
The first can be dealt with by a strict code of conduct for both interest groups and parliamentarians enforceable where appropriate by criminal penalties. The second is more difficult. We don’t like paying for political parties and fewer and fewer of us choose to belong to them so as a result they have a funding crisis. We have a simple decision to make: do we think that political parties as currently constructed are an important part of our democracy or are we happy to see the more frequent election of ‘celebrities’ from say the world of media and sport? If we are comfortable with the latter fine, let’s just let political parties die. If not we will have to resuscitate them, probably with an injection of our cash.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we are brought up to understand that politicians in a democracy are ‘representatives of the people’, hence our current disappointment with a political class that has become more and more professionalised and career driven. Maybe the answer is to ban any politician from serving more than two terms then there might be a greater dynamic in our political culture and a greater representative quality. People who give their lives or just some of their time for public service should be able command our ‘respect’. If George Galloway’s victory reminds us of that so much the better, but we in turn have a duty to foster a democratic system that, in turn, allows for this.