Alice Mahon, the former Labour MP for Halifax, resigned on 17 April over government policy, in particular the Welfare Reform Bill.
But her final decision to leave Labour was prompted Damian McBride affair. She had, she said, been “absolutely scandalised” by it. She is right to feel that way. However, and unfortunately, a startling fact about the McBride affair is that, so far, it has not had a negative impact on Labour’s standing in the polls. To many “smeargate” must be “same old, same old”, another reason to be cynical about all mainstream politics and all politicians.
“Smeargate”, along with the recent furore over MP’s expenses, are indicators of a government and political system which is speeding towards the American system of bourgeois politics. In the US politics we see the obvious and overwhelming dominance of style over substance; a clash of hairdos and relative slickness of image ranks way above any competition over concrete policies. In the US, as a corollary of the image thing, it matters an awful lot what smears and dirty tricks a party can dig up against its opponent. That is what makes the difference between being elected, or not elected.
Such a political system rests on political parties having vast wealth to create and broadcast an image, on the parties “doing the business” for the wealthy, and on individual politicians accumulating wealth. It is a plutocratic political system.
Britain’s political system is also becoming a plutocracy. Some of its “servants” are individually wealthy. They collect a variety of expenses and MPs use their day job as MP to acquire an array of outside paid jobs, directorships and shareholdings.
British MPs are not yet immune to “public opinion” however. Gordon Brown’s recent “u-turn” on reforming the MP’s expenses system is the act of a man in a panic. He does not want to be seen to be doing nothing when the full list of all MPs’ expenses is published later this year (something the government has delayed, doing despite being under a court order to do so).
But essentially New Labour does not care. A perusal of the Register of Members’ Interests gives an insight into how far New Labour, as well as the Tories and the Lib-Dems, are embracing the plutocracy.
Several themes emerge from the detail of the Register; some are trivial compared to others, but it all adds up to a political elite which is on the make:
• MPs regularly get their business class flights upgraded. They have a ready supply of “good friends” who care about their comfort. And about their happiness too, if the free tickets to Wimbledon are anything to go by.
• Many MPs are lawyers and, as is well-established, lawyering is an efficient route to wealth. It certainly helps if you are, like many MP-lawyers, still practising.
• MPs are renowned for their services to journalism.
• MPs play their part in the “landlord community” (anyone want to rent a second home?)
• Many MPs have remunerated directorships and positions in companies. Some of these must have come about as a result of “value added” to MPs’ CVs by having the job of MP.
For example Labour MP Hilary Armstrong is a member of the advisory board of GovNet Communications (public sector publications and events), and the Advisory Committee of Sita UK (recycling and resource management company).
• Oil and gas in the Russian and ex-USSR part of the world are a popular interest among MPs.
• Some MPs are entreprenuerial. Alan Milburn has managed get his own company, A M Strategy Limited, set up to undertake media/consultancy work. Wasn’t he supposed to be being a devoted family man? But Anne Widdecombe wins a prize for creativity with her Merry Monks Editions Limited, set up to import and sell gift items!
• Some MPs are very engergetic. How does George Galloway have the time to be an MP at all? What with his radio show, weekly column for Scottish Daily Record, speaking engagements, miscellaneous TV appearances, and many nights away in places like Barbados and Bahrain, for peace conferences, and Syria, (just to soak up the atmosphere?)
• Tony Baldry, the Tory MP for Banbury, is Chairman for a company which invests in agriculture and natural resources in Sierra Leone and another which develops oil licences and exploration. That sounds a bit dodgy, but who are we plebs to say? And he’s the busiest of them all, having not two, not three, but seven directorships, as well as being… a practising barrister, arbitrator and mediator!
• Some MPs, Labour MP Stuart Bell for one, have got themselves into trouble over links between their businesses and their day job.
Bell is director of Spenview, “a private boutique of companies” which includes Spenview Communications, a consultancy firm. The Guardian reported in January 2009 that Spenview Communications claimed to “offer exciting insights into government thinking on a broad range of legislative and regulatory topics covering all aspects of commerce and business”.
So not a lobbying organisation? No, Bell maintains, “This is a private family business. The website covers my writing and I am an international lawyer.” (Of course he is.)
• Some MPs, particluarly the Tory ones, are just plain rich and/or gentleman farmer/landowner types. Take Henry Bellingham, Tory MP for North West Norfolk, who, as well as owning forestry and arable land in Norfolk, is director of Glencara Estate Company (which owns commercial and agricultural land). And... he’s a lawyer! (But non-practising).
• A special categories of MPs on the make has to be reserved for Tory Shadow Ministers and Labour ex-Ministers. Tory Shadow Ministers are clearly trying to get experience under their belt with their “job-related” directorships. And the Labour ex-Ministers are just getting what’s their due after toiling hard for country as well as constituency.
David Blunkett, with a variety of paid jobs directly related to his ministerial experience, provides advice to Crisp Thinking Ltd, an internet software security provider on extending protection for children. Ahh... According to the Register that netted him £25,001-£30,000. One of his best paid jobs last year was the annual contract for twelve feature articles for the Sun (£45,001-£50,000), enabling him to be outspoken on all kinds of “social issues”.
• There probably should be a League Table for MPs who get the most paid speaking engagements in a year. Last year Charles Clarke, was always on hand to speak, e.g. at the “Further Education and Skills Summit Conference” organised by Neil Stewart Associates. It’s good to see some professional input into the crumbling, underfunded mess that is further education.
But Clarke got a break from all that speechifying (or then again, perhaps not) when he joined a number of other MPs on a British Syrian Society trip to Syria to meet the government, its “parliamentarians” and business leaders back in May 2008. Good work, but Clarke should really have got himself on last year’s MPs’ away-nights in the Cayman Islands.