In terms of democracy the British have often had a patronising attitude to states where the political system seems to be corrupt. Of course, with only half of our parliament elected, we have little ground to stand on when commenting on democracy anyway. However, as the suspension of three former ministers yesterday Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon because of their 'lobbying' activities shows that we have no basis on which to criticise foreign political systems when ours is so clearly corrupt. Parliament is very good at keeping its dirty secrets secret, but occasionally evidence comes out. Back in 1994-6 we had the 'cash for questions' scandal that MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, in connection with Ian Greer's lobbying company, had received payments in order to ask specific questions in the House of Commons. Other MPs were subsequently criticised by the Nolan Committee for behaving in the same way.
Starting last year we had a whole string of allegations against MPs who had been doing various dubious things with their expenses, in particular around their second homes, supposedly to allow them to attend parliament more easily. This followed rumbling complaints against certain MPs from both the Labour and Conservative parties, in 2007-8. It included ministers like Ed Balls and Jacqui Smith. In 2009 a whole raft of 'fiddles' by numerous politicians came to light. The scandal compelled Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin and Jacqui Smith, Geoff Hoon, Hazel Blears, Tony McNulty and Kitty Ussher all resigning their ministerial positions. A number of Conservatives involved, Andrew McKay, Douglas Hogg, Anthony Steen, Sir Peter Viggers, Sir Nicholas Winterton and Lady Ann Winterton (how come a married couple can both be MPs anyway, is that not wrong in itself?), Christopher Frasier and Ian Taylor all said they would stand down from parliament either immediately or at the next election. Last night the BBC News Channel gave details of 20 MPs, many of them Labour ones, who have regularly received free holidays in places like Gibraltar, Cyprus, the Maldives and Sri Lanka and then have tabled motions and asked questions in parliament for the benefit of those territories/countries.
The saying is that 'power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely'. This is why during John Major's terms of office it was the Conservatives who were most prominent in having corrupt MPs and now it is Labour who is at the forefront in such illegal behaviour. It seems that numerous MPs and ministers, tens of them, have been involved in taking gifts and payments in order to exert influence on the behalf of vested interests. Stephen Byers was seen likening himself to a taxi, available to exert influence in exchange for payments. Has Byers never realised what the concept of prostitution is? Stephen Byers is a prostitute. He does not give sexual favours, but he gives himself entirely in exchange for money. How have we got to this position? I suppose part of it comes from the incomplete job that the Nolan Committee did in stemming corruption in the 1990s and that even this year's reaction to the scandal has been muted. We need to be arresting and imprisoning corrupt MPs otherwise we will not root out this behaviour from the centre of our civil society. In such a context are we surprised when we find large companies such as BAe are paying bribes to win contracts? Parliament and its members set an example to the whole of society and at present are showing us that we need to be prostitutes to get on.
I supported the Labour Party until the mid-1990s when it became the Blairite Party. I think that era when we moved from traditional political parties to the personality focused ones, that keep reminding me of the Peronist politics of Argentina and Gaullism in France. Tony Blair himself, while not being charged with corruption, has gone on to an extremely prosperous career being paid large sums to speak and share his 'wisdom'. Having a party which focused on personalities rather than policies and clearly elicited people seeking influence, the whole Bernie Ecclestone, Hindujas, Cool Britannia scams, characterised politics in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London (2001-8) and a Labour MP 1987-2000 (he remained an MP until 2001 but without the Labour whip), sees the era of Tony Blair's governments with their focus on money rather than policies as being crucial in moving us into an era of very widespread 'sleaze' going beyond just a few corrupt MPs to tens of them behaving in this way.
The fact that Lord Mandelson was compelled to resign twice due to dubious dealings and yet was still able to return to official positions and then receive a peerage because he was favoured by Tony Blair sent out a signal that a blind eye would be turned to such dubious behaviour. After his first resignation in 2000 over an improper payment for his home, Mandelson should never have been allowed to come anywhere near government ever again. The fact that he was appointed a minister again and had to resign in 2001 over his connection with the Hindujas again on the basis of improper influence being wielded showed so many MPs that might have been thinking about behaving corruptly, that they would not suffer a great deal even if caught behaving that way. Even while Commissioner for Trade in the European Commission questions were asked about Mandelson connections with leading business people under investigation by the EU. Mandelson was made a baron in 2008 and entered the government for the third time. Is it surprisingly that so many have followed this role model's behaviour?
How do we resolve this situation? The first step is to press criminal charges. If taking money for asking questions or exerting political pressure is not yet strictly criminal behaviour it must become so immediately and people must be arrested and imprisoned when found guilty of breaking that law. The second thing is that we need to entirely flush out parliament of all of those who have been there in this corrupt phase. I would say that any MP currently in the House of Commons must stand down at the next election and we have an entirely new house that would come in on the basis of the new laws. I acknowledge that that would leave us with an inexperienced parliament and government, so the compromise would be to limit all MPs to only two terms of office. Thus, we could retain anyone who was elected in the 2005 election or by-elections since. Anyone who has been in parliament any longer must now leave. Anyone elected in 2005 would have to leave in 2015 at the latest and anyone who is elected this year would have to go in 2020 at the latest. Five years is more than enough time to build up experience. Of course, some MPs will again become corrupt, but hopefully the new laws would punish them and importantly a culture like Britain of the old days, would be established that eschewed what has become an acceptance of corrupt behaviour. It always has to be challenged. Ernest Bevin, Labour Foreign Secretary 1945-51 used to dine with business leaders and they probably exerted influence through him. However, it seems that corruption was far less rife than it has become today.
While I would not advise that we move to the Chartists' demand of a parliament every year, I certainly would reduce the life of parliaments say to 3 or 4 years to stop people becoming established in the post and so prone to exerting influence in the interests of others. Perhaps we could make it so that an MP could sit only for 3 x 3-year parliaments or if you insist 4 x 3-year parliaments. People argue that short governments lead them to make crowd pleasing policies, but that happens even now with 4 or 5-year parliaments. The UK has constantly neglected long-term planning anyway. I would have more confidence if policies were not being introduced by MPs doing it because they were being paid to behave that way and who were not corrupt in themselves. We need to flush out the corruption from parliament. It is already a gift to the extremists such as the UKIP and BNP who argue that they are untouched by such corruption, because if they gained influence then a lot of us would be finding policies and behaviour that we would find unpalatable in terms of equality, democracy and personal freedom. We are at a turning point. Voting in a Conservative government will bring no change as their MPs are as mired in this corruption as those of Labour. We need thorough reform and new ways of parliament being run to finally clear away the corruption we are seeing and to ensure as best we can that it does not return to our political life in the future.