Saturday, January 03, 2015

Big Money, not the house of Lords, is the really big problem with our democracy - and it's not just a Westminster problem, it's an SNP problem too

I can see why Alex Salmond would suggest making the House of Lords elected, but on its own that will not fix the biggest problems with our democracy. The US has an elected upper house, and even more corruption in the system than the UK has. Nor will devolution, or even independence, fix the biggest problem with our democracy without other reforms (1).

That’s because the biggest problem is that we allow big banks, companies and the super-rich to buy up political influence. They do this partly by big donations to party funds and election campaigns.

The big political parties use the donations to pay advisers, advertisers, graphic designers and pollsters to design campaigns of leaflets, billboards and adverts to persuade people to vote for them. Then, when they’re in government, they pay the donors back many times over, with taxpayers’ money.

They do it with public contracts that massively over-pay companies and have no safeguards to ensure value for money for taxpayers, for instance with PFIs. They do it by permitting tax havens in UK dependencies like the City of London and the Channel Islands so the big donors can avoid taxes easily. They do it by letting them off with most of their evasion of tax even when they’re caught, through “sweetheart deals”. They do it by not enforcing anti-monopoly laws and de-regulating whole industries so a few large companies can dominate each economic sector and charge consumers what they like whether their own costs are going up or down. This de-regulation also led to the banking crisis.

In the last 5 years the Conservative party has got more than half its donations from the financial sector – mostly big banks and hedge funds. It has failed to bring in any proper regulation of the banks of the Glass-Steagall kind that would ban high street savings banks from also being “investment” (actually mostly stock market casino) banks (2).

To save on the millions every few years it would take to publicly fund the election campaigns of all candidates at a low and equal level, we end up losing tens to hundreds of billions every single year in big companies allowed to overcharge us for electricity, food and many other things ; in PFI contracts ; in lost tax revenues ; in companies allowed to grow too large so there is no longer real competition to reduce prices for consumers ; in de-regulation leading to everything from higher prices to banking crises.

The Revolving Door Between Government and Big Business

They also do it through the “revolving door” between government and the firms its meant to regulate. If government ministers, civil servants, MPs and advisers do favours for big donors to party funds, we allow them to leave government and go straight to work for firms they were regulating, deciding on taxation for, or giving contracts to.

For instance Sean Worth, an adviser to David Cameron on NHS “reforms” (largely contracting out services to private firms) left that job after just two years, to become an adviser to MHP Communications, which lobbies on behalf of the Priory Group, which runs mental health services for the NHS (3).

Labour in government were no different. Health Secretaries Alan Milburn and Patricia Hewitt both contracted out NHS services to the private sector, and both became paid advisers to private healthcare firms on leaving government (4) – (5).

 Many other former ministers and advisers, Labour and Conservative, have done the same (6).

And one of the ways the parties pay back donors to party funds is by allowing people employed by these firms to take up jobs in the same government departments, so that the biggest firms are able to scrap any regulations they don’t like, as well as avoid competition laws being enforced to break them up when they become too big.

Not just a Westminster problem – a Scottish and SNP problem too

And the problem is not just at Westminster. Even if Scotland was independent the same problem of big business and the super-rich buying up political influence would remain.

The SNP has already shown it can be bought by big donors too.

Within a month of receiving a £500,000 donation from Brian Souter, who owns much of Highland Transport group,  in January 2007, the SNP scrapped its policy of re-regulation of the bus network. And to this day the Scottish governments has no plans to renationalise or even seriously re-regulate bus services (7) – (8).

Legalised Corruption

All of this is political and government corruption by any other name. In legal terms it may not be corruption, because while there are laws against bribes in money, there are no laws against taking those bribes as big donations to party funds in return for favours at taxpayers’ expense, nor taking them in kind as paid employment, nor in letting representatives of the banks or companies into government to write their own regulations in return. But there should be laws against it. In moral terms, and in its effects on voters and taxpayers’ interests, isn’t it just as corrupt as taking a bribe?

The almost powerless House of Lords is a distraction from the big problems

The House of Lords has almost no power. The majority of what it does is to review bills sent to it by the Commons (often badly thought out laws rushed through by the government) and suggest amendments to them. It can do that twice. When it comes to the third time it has to approve them even if the commons has rejected all the Lords' amendments. That’s been the case for over 100 years since the 1911 Parliament Act.

Scrap it and don't replace it and the government can rush through half-arsed laws without any oversight or amendment and frequently no-one will even notice till it's too late.

Scrap it and replace it with an elected upper chamber, without having fixed all the other problems, and you end up like the US - with either a rubber stamp (if the same party or parties control both houses) or gridlock with almost no laws passed at all (if different parties control the two houses), and most laws only passed if they benefit big donors to election campaign funds.

I'm not saying there are no problems with the Lords - how Lords are appointed needs changed. Party leaders shouldn't just be able to hand seats to big donors to party funds, and there doesn’t seem much justification for hereditary peers.

Electing them is one possibility, but on it’s own will solve little and might well just hand the party machines and big donors to party funds as much influence in the upper house as they already have in the more powerful House of Commons.

Binning our votes unrepresented – First Past The Post Elections

Another problem is than the the First Past the Post electoral system used for UK General Elections, which often gives single parties big majorities on a minority of the votes and throws away any vote not cast for the winning candidate in a constituency unrepresented (and the winning candidate can win on the largest minority of the vote, doesn't even need 50%) .

In the 2010 General election more than half the votes cast were for losing candidates and were effectively binned unrepresented.  In 2005 and 2010 two-thirds of MPs didn’t even have a majority of the votes cast in their constituency. And it’s even worse than that, because of safe seats. The safer a seat the less voters bother voting at all  (9) – (10).

Lack of Democracy inside parties

A fourth problem is the lack of any written constitution or law requiring democracy inside political parties.
So for instance in the Labour party, the party leader can change policy to benefit big donors to party funds at any time, and ignore votes by party conference as “non-binding”.

Whether we are part of the UK or an independent country, private donations to political parties and the revolving door between government and big business are two of the biggest weaknesses in our democracy.

How to fix our democracy

Public funding of all candidates in elections at a low and equal level would allow the giving or receiving of any private political donation to be made a criminal offence. This would have to include any donation from any source, as otherwise companies could use phony “charities” or industry front groups.

Making it also a criminal offence with a stiff jail sentence to move between employment in a government department in any capacity and employment in any firm regulated by, given contracts by or whose taxes were decided by that department within a 10 year period would end the revolving door syndrome.

 Those two measures could take most of the big money influence out of politics and make politicians look to the people who elected them first.

We could end dodgy PFI contracts. It could end de-regulation of the kind that led to the financial crisis and allow the banks to be re-regulated to prevent another one (six years after the crisis there is still no law against high street savings banks also being “investment” banks). It could stop government letting big donors to party funds use government permitted tax havens in UK dependencies like the Channel Islands, and end “sweetheat deals” that let Goldman Sachs and others off with millions in tax at a time, even when they are caught evading it.

If we just have an elected House of lords, or get more devolution or independence, and think that’s democracy fixed though, business will continue as usual with the majority’s interests over-ridden by those of big donors to party funds.

A written constitution specifying internal democracy within parties (e.g constituency parties to have the sole right to select or deselect candidates ; votes of party conference must become party policy etc) would also be progress, but is similarly a minor issue as long as big money is allowed to controls our governments and opposition parties.

(1) = 20 Dec 2014 ‘Alex Salmond calls for ‘peasants’ revolt’ vote to abolish House of Lords’,

(2) = BBC News 09 Feb 2011 ‘More than half of Conservative donors 'from the City'’,

(3) = Guardian 23 Nov 2012 ‘David Cameron's former NHS privatisation adviser becomes lobbyist’,

(4) = Guardian 17 May 2011 ‘Former Labour ministers rushing to take private sector jobs, report finds’,

(5) = Telegraph 12 Jun 2012 ‘Social mobility man Alan Milburn is on the way to a million’,

(6) = Lobbying Transparency – Revolving Door is Unhealthy,

(7) = Scotsman 22 Apr 2007 ‘SNP under attack after bus U-turn’,

(8) = Scotsman 12 Feb 2011 ‘£500,000 war chest for Alex Salmond’,

(9) = Electoral Reform Society 6 May 2010 ‘The UK General Election 2010 In-depth’, page 35,

(10) = IPPR 2011 ‘Worst of Both Worlds -Why First Past the Post no longer works’ , by Guy Lodge and Glenn Gottfried,