With the British Parliamentary election on 7th May 2015, Muslims are once again discussing whether they should vote and, if so, who for. Some who claim we must vote as a Muslim community tend to assume that it’s the electorate who decide the policies and future direction of the Government. Therefore they believe it is essential that Muslims must vote (even considering it wajib) in order to elect politicians who will act favourably towards the Muslim community. This argument has been repeated for a number of decades yet with each successive elections the situation of the Muslim community hasn’t improved. In fact since 2000 the situation of the Muslims in the UK has gotten worse.
Furthermore there is also a growing despondency towards voting and political participation from wider society. The peak turnout for elections in 1950 was at 83.9% and dropped to 59.4% in 2001 with a slight increase of 5.7% in the last decade. This also coincides with a general decline in party membership. In the early 1950s, 3 million people were Conservative Party members and more than a million belonged to the Labour Party. These days, Labour has fewer than 200,000 members, whilst the Conservative membership has collapsed to as low as 130,000.
Why then are fewer people turning out to exercise their democratic right to vote in one of the longest established democracies in the world? And why is that Muslims engaging in elections don’t seem to affect change favourable for their community? Is it the case that in a capitalistic society those with the capital, as opposed to those with a vote, are the ones that determine policy and direction for Britain?
In this article we will analyse the influence of corporations and wealthy individuals over the political establishment. Five key areas will be looked at:
- Funding for political parties
- Funding for think tanks to develop policies
- Corporate lobbying
- Close relationship between businesses and politicians. I.e. sitting on boards or payed outside consultants.
- Media as an arm of ‘corporatocracy’
Funding for political parties and their campaigns.
Britain being a free-market capitalist society places the increase in GDP as the main criteria in determining the success of any Government. Thus inherent within the system is a necessity to ensure that capital producers are incentivised to produce more. But in addition to this corporations and wealthy individuals will bankroll political parties. Hence this funding becomes the lifeblood of mainstream political parties.
The Tory’s biggest individual donor is Michael Farmer, founder of the hedge fund RK Capital Management who made his fortune in the international metal markets. Since the 2010 elections he has made eight donations totalling £2.2m. The Tories second largest donor is property millionaire David Rowland who is responsible for the party’s single largest donation of £1.28m since the 2010 elections. Behind these two, is May Makhzoumi, the wife of the billionaire Fouad Makhzoumi who was at the centre of the Jonathan Atiken arms scandal and has donated £908K. All of this excludes companies who make up 25% of Tory donations such as JCB Research, Lycamobile, Flowidea with donations totalling over £2m. A study by the Bureau found that nearly 60 donors gave more than £50,000 to the Tories last year, entitling each of them to a face-to-face meeting with leading members of the party up to and including Cameron. The recent “cash for access” allegations made against Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind reveal that this corruption isn’t unique to the Tories but runs through the veins of the Labour party too. This shows that anyone with money, regardless of whether they are British or not, can influence politics in Britain. Unfortunately for the vast majority of the British electorate, democracy has left them excluded and impotent due to their lack of wealth. Scandal after scandal has shown that the ballot box is less significant than power and wealth when it comes to making a difference. The electorate can vote politicians in or out, but they have next to no access or influence over them. Those that are rich and powerful and have influence remain the same. They cannot be voted out. They continue to pull the strings of whoever is in power. The old adage, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in”, is harder to deny when one government after another are embroiled in the similar scandals.
Even with the perception of change when the Labour Party came to power in 1997 they too succumbed to the influence of corporations and capitalist interests. For example they suspended their manifesto pledge in the 1997 elections to ban tobacco advertising after receiving £1million from Bernie Ecclestone the F1 chief, whose sport was heavily dependent on tobacco advertising. Similarly in December 2006 Tony Blair forced the Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigations into BAe Systems for the alleged bribery to win a £40bn arms contract with Saudi Arabia. Again money proved more effective than the ballot box.
Funding for think tanks that develop policies for parties
There are dozens of think tanks and grassroots campaigns in the UK who are often founded by politicians and funded by corporate donors. Think tanks play the role of providing political openings for policies by presenting research in a way that suits the Capitalists. They have a consistent agenda to produce policy research for those laws which would serve the capitalists and oppose those laws that would bring attention to the looting of banks and corporations. They advocate the privatisation of state assets and argue that the rich should pay less tax. Some of them have a turnover of several millions pounds a year.
Take for example a right wing organisation funded by Conservative businessmen called “The TaxPayers Alliance”. Besides the deceptive name itself, this organisation produces campaigns to support the free-market ideologues. In 2004 they launched a campaign to highlight extreme examples of public-spending waste to be passed off as representative of how taxes are used. By focusing on the spending of public sector funds instead of focusing on the greedy bankers, they were able to generate opinion to justify public sector cuts. They ran a similar campaign against trade unions called ‘facility time’ in 2010 which allowed trade union representatives to take time off work to attend union duties. Whilst research showed that such facility time provided huge savings, they were able to create an opinion to justify Cameron writing to local authorities to crack down on ‘facility time’. In 2008, the Guardian reported that the TaxPayers Alliance was “Arguably the most influential pressure group in the country”. This organisation received millions of pounds of donations by similar corporate donors that funded the Conservatives and helped them gain key marginal seats in the 2005 election.
The think tank, Policy Exchange, trustees of whom include the CEO of the banking firm Edmond de Rothschild Ltd, Theodore Agnew, an insurance executive appointed by Michael Gove and other Conservative tycoons launched the “NotoAV” campaign which won the Electoral Reform debate that would call for the scrapping of the “First-Past-The-Post” election style that makes it impossible for any political party except the top two to gain majority seats. The Policy Exchange was founded by a number of key Tory MP’s including Michael Gove who later became the Secretary State for Education.
Another rightwing think tank called Reform specialises in pushing the case for the privatisation of public services. This think tank receives donors from corporate giants such as Lloyds, Novo Nordisk, Sky, General Electric, the General Healthcare Group, BMI Healthcare and Bupa Healthcare which would benefit from the selling off of publicly run services. In 2013, Reform published research endorsing the privatisation of Britain’s prisons. The report was widely cited in the British Media as “thought-provoking”. But what was not mentioned was Reform’s substantial funding from security firms GS4, Serco and Sodexo. Companies that would benefit from further privatisation. In 2012 alone, Reform received £24,500 from G4s and £7,500 from Serco.
Critics of the Free-Market economy are marginalised including academic criticism. University economic departments champion the unrestrained free-market economics in line with Francis Fukuyama declaration following the collapse of the Soviet Union that it is the “End of History”. Even mild forms of state involvement in the economy are consigned to a discredited past. Ha-Joon Chang, a dissident economist, said “In academia, I am in a minority of maybe 5%” He explains that “Because of the ideological dominance of the free-market school, these people have found jobs in business schools, government schools, and international relations”. For those economist wanting to be seen as mainstream, there is little option but to embrace neo-liberal ideas and the dogma of free-market capitalism. By funding think tanks and grassroots campaigns, the rich ensure that there is research to support the justification of policies that makes it easier to yield public opinion.
Corporate lobbying in the UK is big business. Lobbyists are paid persuaders whose job it is to influence the decisions of government. Typically, they operate behind closed doors, through quiet negotiation with politicians. And the influence they enjoy is constructed very consciously, using a whole array of tactics.
Tamasin Cave, a director of lobbying investigators SpinWatch, describes the strategy of the corporate elite, “So, I’m going to invest in you as a lawmaker, I’m going to help you out, I’m going to support your policies. I’m going to give you a platform on which to promote yourself. I might even give you employment when you want to retire. I’m certainly going to be interesting and attentive. I’m going to give you useful information. I’m giving you all of these things.’ There are no formal obligations in response, of course. But it binds politicians into the networks of corporate power. ‘From where I’m sitting, it feels like there’s a very cosy relationship between big business and the key, top people in the government of the day,”.
Last year Tamasin Cave wrote 10 ways that lobbying businesses bend opinion. Tactics include spinning the media, engineering followings, buying in credibility, sponsoring thinktanks, consulting critics and trying to neutralise the opposition, flooding the web with positive information for their agenda and hiring politicians. All of this is pitched off as a legitimate forms of engagement, however, in reality, corporate lobbying dominates the corridors of parliament due to the large amounts of capital involved. The research and campaign co-ordinator of Cooperate Europe Observatory, Oliver Hoedeman, described how British American Tobacco companies have seven full-time lobbyists and the tobacco industry as a whole employs around 100 in Brussels spending more than £4.3m a year. In the finance industry, legal loan sharks Wonga and other company executives paid £1250 per head to meet ministers to develop business-friendly ideas and policies. There are lobbyists from every industry, however big lobbying agencies, only account for about a quarter of the whole lobbying industry. Tamasin Cave explains “The Majority of the industry are working in-house at the companies. So Tesco’s supermarket has a dedicated lobbying team of around six, but they have enormous corporate communication teams which will then feed into that and which will do a lot of the messaging.” Companies would not be throwing such large sums of money around unless they believed they were getting a substantial return. In 2013, the coalition introduced a transparency of lobbying bill which was supposed to tackle dubious lobbying practises, instead it underlined how successful private lobbying exposed politician’s natural inclinations to defend private interests. The bill ignored 95% of corporate lobbying tactics and critics termed it a “Gagging Bill”.
Close relations between business and politician’s i.e sitting on boards
Politics has rightly so become a euphemism for “corrupt, rich, and wealthy”. Attitudes Muslims in particular are used to having towards politicians in the subcontinent. It is generally accepted that British politics are less corrupt than the Muslim World, however, this is another myth that we as a community must stop believing. British Politics is a factory for producing rich individuals that are mercenaries for the corporatocracy who they work for in and outside parliament.
According to a 2012 study, 46% of the top 50 publicly traded firms in the UK had a British parliamentarian as either a director or a shareholder. This figure, 92% of such businesses, was higher than for any of the 47 countries that were also investigated with the next in rank being Italy at 16% of such business. The corporate-legislative connection in Britain is an astonishing six times stronger than the Western European average. British business and political elites are not distinct entities.
Take for example, Patricia Hewitt, former Secretary of State for Health. Six months after stepping down has Home Secretary for personal reasons, she was appointed as “special advisor” by Alliance Boots, a company that makes around 40% of its money from NHS contracts, paying her over £300 an hour. The private equity firm Cinven, hired her as “special advisor” for £500 for every hour of work. After stepping down as MP, she then was hired by British Telecoms, who hired her as a £75,000 a year non-executive director.
Another example, is Geoff Hoon who had awarded the defence giant Agusta Wetsland a £1.7 billion contract for a new generation of helicopters, in 2011 he was made their Managing Director for International Business. Alan Milburn, who also served as Secretary of State for Health, was paid a consultancy fee worth £30,000 to advise Bridgepoint Capital, a private equity group with a speciality in healthcare and ended up as the chairman of their European Advisory Board.
David Blunkett, was the Home Secretary in the Blair government. He was driven from office in 2005 after failing to declare a company directorship. He ended up being the “Social Responsibility Advisor” for the Murdock Company News International, even after the widespread hacking scandal. Peter Mandelson, another Labour party politican, became chairman of the financial advisory firm Lazard International and was paid large sums by the likes of Coca-Cola and Lloyds Bank for consultancy work.
Tony Blair was not a bad Apple, but from a political environment that is rigged with corporate milieu. British Politics is a cult of millionaires that switch from parliamentary seats to board room seats in order to advance the mission of Capitalism which is to shrink the state and “direct the wealth into the hands of the rich” as Adam Smith said.
Media is part of the Corporatocracy
The media play a critical role within the political establishment of Britain. In order to deflect criticism from the wealthy and powerful elite, the media focus on the bottom line of society often with coverage based on distortions, myths and straight up lies. Take for example some recent polls gauging public perceptions;
- A YouGov poll published in January 2013 found that, on average, people estimate that 27% of social security is claimed fraudulently, as opposed to the true figure of 0.7%
- 41% of people believed that social security goes to unemployed people, whilst the real figure is 3%
- Another poll found that 29% of people think more taxpayers money goes on jobseekers allowance than on pensions, when in fact the government spends fifteen times more on pensions than it does on benefits. Yet, those who were best informed about the true figures are far less likely to support cuts to social security, which shows how much political capital can be gained by promoting ignorance and by airbrushing out reality.
- A recent Ipsos Mori poll found that Britons thought teenage pregnancy was twenty five times higher than official statistics revealed it to be, that 24% of the UK population is Muslim, even though it is less than 5% in the UK and that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the real figure is around 13-15%.
This shows the extent to which media coverage resulted in public perceptions that are completely detached from reality. This is unsurprising since those who own the media (statistic) are from the same capitalist ilk who are ideologically committed to the system that protects the rich, therefore most of the media serves as a partisan defender of the interests of those in power.
The media ruthlessly engages in the political elections debate and is prejudice in its presentation of political parties. It glorifies those who the media is backing and is polemic in personalising and attacking those candidates and political parties who are competing. Take for example the elections of 1992 when the Labour leader Neil Kinnock was on the cusp of winning the elections after years of disenchantment by the conservative government of “Thatcher the milk snatcher”. One poll projected that Labour was on the course for a 6 point win a week before the elections. Approaching the elections Labour was subjected to one of the most vitriolic media campaigns in British history. Majority of the tabloids met and decided to co-ordinate attacks on the Labour Party. The sun infamously had a front page headline titled “If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person to leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights”. The Conservatives won the election under labours noses and the next day the Sun boasted with a headline “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.”
Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Murdoch press had loyally defended ‘Thatcherism’, however, by the mid-90s, the Conservatives became a laughing stock losing public opinion and as a result Murdoch and his clan, shifted support from the Conservatives to Labour. Blair and his transformation of the Labour party to “New Labour” was all about accepting the capitalist status quo defined by Thatcher’s years in government. He had removed clause 4 from the Labour Party’s constitution which many had been seen as Labour Party’s commitment to socialism. Thus turning Labour towards capitalist principles. New Labour began holding “prawn cocktail party’s” to woe the financial corporate sector and so the assumption was they had become more electable. Then two months before the 1997 elections that swept New Labour into power, Blair flew to meet Murdock and cemented a marriage of convenience. Now Blair and the Labour party were closer than ever to the Murdock Press and Blair was even asked to be the godfather to one of Murdock’s children. This intimate relationship between politicians and the media shows that the media is not independent but acts athat wants to manufacture a particular opinion. The media is driven by corporate advertising contracts and this is how the capitalists ensure that only those policies that fortify their wealth are passed by using the media to manipulate public opinion.
In summary, the political apathy in Britain is in line with the political futility of elections. More and more people are realising that they are being conned into believing in a representative system, when in reality, it is a capitalist system that is designed for a handful of political elite. This point is summed up by George Monbiot who said, “When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political funding system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians of the three main parties stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?”
Therefore it seems clear that creating change will not occur by choosing between corporate backed parties who determine the type of candidate who will run. Indeed by engaging in the democratic process, one is simply legitimising the system that accentuates power in the hands of the capitalists that serves no community except the rich community.