By Jonathan Brown
Britain was swept by a lobbying scandal recently which damaged the integrity of the British political system. The first to fall in this controversial investigative journalism swoop was the Tory MP Patrick Mercer. A joint Panorama and Telegraph team laid a trap which ensnared Mr Mercer, and the consequences of which led to him subsequently resigning as the Conservative Party whip. It involved secret filming in meetings between Mr Mercer and a fictitious lobbying group which offered to pay the MP money to promote business interests in Fiji, one means of doing so was by setting up an all-party parliamentary group. He also directed questions to the Foreign Minster exploiting his privileged position regarding access and profiting from this. The wrongdoing of Mercer was that he did not declare his financial interest to Parliamentary authorities regarding Fiji and was not open regarding this.
The events damage further the already strained relationship between the electorate and politicians, and undermine parliamentary democracy. In not declaring relevant financial and special interests, the public are kept in the dark regarding the motivations of politicians and the agendas they may be pursuing. Lord Laird resigned from his position as UUP whip after footage obtained in the same investigation appeared to show him agreeing to profit from carrying out his normal parliamentary activities.
A Sunday Times investigation embroiled 2 members of the House of Lords in the controversy surrounding lobbying, catalysed by the information brought to light regarding Patrick Mercer. Footage appeared to show the peers offering to host functions at the Lords in return for money, despite rules forbidding members from profiteering from their positions. This blowback from this led to the Labour peers Lord Cunningham and Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate being suspended from the party.
The revealing sting operations made public in the past week or so have uncovered and confirmed existing suspicions amongst many that in the British parliamentary democracy money can buy power. No matter how obscure the view or cause that is being lobbied for, financial might can almost guarantee special treatment. This undermines and indeed corrupts the central tenant of democracy enshrined in the principle of ‘one person one vote’, with an unequal system persisting to the detriment of fairness and the integrity of the British political system.
Lobbying it must be stated is of course not illegal and can operate as a vital tenant of a well-rounded democracy. One aspect of this is that it a means by which the electorate and influence MP’s once in power and ensure that their power extends beyond simply voting in elections. What is so controversial about the recent events is how easily the system can be exploited with major problems regarding fairness of access to decision-makers. What has emerged is the ability of the current system to be perverted into a case of MP’s for hire with the highest bidder winning, irrelevant of any of the factors so central to democracy. It raises a wider question about the robustness of the rules regarding the all-party parliamentary groups (APPG) and their susceptibility to be twisted in a way which is damaging to democracy, with numerous calls for reform in the wake of the scandal.
One charge levelled at the unions in the wake of this crisis, which shall be addressed here, is that the unions are apparently equally at fault in undermining democracy through lobbying, due to their well-known financial backing of the Labour party and the influence and leverage this brings with regard to influencing policy. This indictment of the unions is absurd. The unions are one of the only means whereby those without enormous personal wealth can mobilise and collectively ensure their voices are heard. They represent millions, while the lobbying scandal reveals one of the worst kept secrets in British politics: that it is the wealthy who call the shots.
The crucial difference between the unions and the activities brought to the light in the lobbying scandal is centred on representativeness. Vested interests of the elites are given precedence in discourse and agenda setting due to money being directed to politicians with them becoming essentially agents of their financial backers, regarding issues which are often not at all representative of the views of the electorate –the fake lobbying for business interests in Fiji a prime example . This elevation of outsider and minority opinions of the elite being given political precedence is not at all synonymous with the work and lobbying the unions do on behalf of their millions of members.
What is needed is far greater transparency regarding lobbying to try and rebuild the trust between the electorate and politicians, before this relationship becomes irreparable.