Michael Ashcroft. Union funding. Ministerial lobbying. The 2010 general election is like a tour around Britain's failing democracy.
By Ian Dunt
We get the general election we deserve. In 1945, Chuchill offered a New Elizabethan Age while Clement Attlee promised, and eventually delivered, the welfare state. That's the kind of election campaign the victors of World War Two deserved.
We've got rich non-doms sunning themselves in central America, striking airline workers, dodgy ministers, and GMTV presenters. That's the kind of election we deserve. This is what we get for allowing the expenses scandal to fizzle out into grumblings in the pub rather than a full-scale radical reform of parliament.
For a while, the storm of the debate whirled around us and ideas were everywhere. The expenses scandal broke and within days we were discussing electoral reform, party funding and parliamentary transparency. Opponents of change mocked, but they were awe-struck by the scale of hatred on the street. There's one thing the British ruling class has always been marvellously good at: reforming as modestly as it can manage when it really, really has to. And that sentiment came to the fore when constituents were spitting at MPs on the streets.
Some tried to prevent the debate reaching out beyond the narrow confines of the expenses row itself. When Jack Straw tried to convince the Commons of the need for a referendum on a relatively modest reform of British voting procedures last Fenbruary, Michael Howard asked him: "Can he tell us how many people who were gathered around his soap box in Blackburn. told him that the answer to the expenses scandal was the introduction of the alternative vote?"
It's an unsatisfying objection. People may not be clamouring for electoral reform per se, but they are desperate for a healthy, ethical political process, and any suggestions should now be welcome. This is one of those moments in our history when the country, always prone to slumber, wakes up and changes itself a little before settling down for a snooze again. George Orwell called it the "deep, deep sleep of England", which he meant rather disparagingly. Personally, I'm quite fond of it, but only on the condition that it remains wise enough to sort itself out when it needs to.
One minor opportunity revealed itself several years ago, with the Hayden Phillips review - itself prompted by a mini-crisis in the form of cash-for-honours, even if that spasm of police action seems a little parochial compared to our current dilemmas. The review called for a cap on party donations, limits on election spending and up to £25m state funding a year for political parties. Labour and the Tories didn't like it. Labour didn't want to lose union funding and the Tories didn't want to lose their big donors. Now look where it has got them.
Lobbying, for its part, has never had the same impact on British politics that it has in America. Barack Obama made it a central issue in his campaign and for a while some of us wondered whether we couldn't use the election to drum up some interest on this side of the Atlantic. We couldn't. A short while ago, David Cameron was sensible enough to state that lobbying would constitute the next expenses-style scandal, a quote which has really been doing the rounds today, much to Tory HQ's satisfaction. But the Tories' criticism of Labour is unconvincing. We have seen nothing at all from the opposition which would suggest their front bench wouldn't behave in the same way if it was on its way out of government.
We need a mandatory register of lobbyists, including identity and resources. It should be online and readily accessible to all. Lobbyist meetings with MPs or ministers must be recorded (this used to be in the ministerial code). The 'cooling off' period between government and lobbying which former ministers and officials must go through should be expanded.
The expenses scandal confirmed a suspicion in the British electorate about the brutalised standards of our representatives. Many parliamentarians wrongly assumed the issues we've just been discussing are different to expenses. They aren't. Expenses is not about expenses. Expenses stands for corruption, the influence of money on the stature of politicians, and a sense that power is slowly drifting away from the British people - to Europe, to the corporations, to the executive branch of government.
Now the general election campaign is acting like a litmus test of a diseased body politic. No one can keep bandaging up these wounds. We need something far more comprehensive and radical than any of the three main political parties are offering.
But be warned. It costs money. The lobbying proposals above require an administrative set-up capable of delivering and monitoring them. Party funding requires the taxpayer to chip in. Even the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which will monitor the expenses system, will cost more than the public purse lost to illegitimate allowance claims. Clean democracy isn't free, but the price is very much worth paying.
It is, after all, just a financial price, and a relatively modest one. Far less, for instance, than we waste on unnecessary and counter-productive foreign wars. The ethical price of not fixing it, the price to our national stature, is around us every day on the front pages of every newspaper. The general election campaign is highlighting it, and thank God for that.
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