By Mazhar Khan
The “cash for access” furore has once again awoken the elephant in the room, namely money and influence in a democracy.
The various scandals; “cash for questions”, “cash for influence”, “cash for honours” and now “cash for access”, show 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.
It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in
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 do 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.
The last Tory administration sheepishly left office in 1997, mired in one corruption scandal after another. In 1994 the “cash for questions” affair, saw Neil Hamilton leave office in humiliation. BBC journalist Martin Bell, a political novice, stood against him and trounced him in the 1997 election. He came to office in his new white suit symbolising a new dawn, a new kind of non-career politician, who rode to victory on the public’s mood for change.
The change came in the form of a New Labour government.
The Labour government announced it would be “whiter than whiter” in the wake of those scandals, but no sooner had Blair got in through the front door of number 10, the Labour party too became mired in scandal. The Labour party suspended its manifesto pledge to ban tobacco advertising after receiving £1million from Bernie Ecclestone the F1 chief, whose sport was heavily dependent on tobacco advertising. Again money proved more effective than the ballot box.
Although today there is a coalition government in power, the scandals have not gone away.
Regardless of party in power, the influence of business over politics remains the same. This should not be surprising, when people are free to make laws, those more powerful amongst them will have a louder voice. The communist adage of “Some people are more equal than others”, is more applicable in a capitalist democracy, where foreign non-voters have a greater influence over politicians than the local citizens. This is not unique to the British democracy but common to all democracies around the world.
“Manifesto pledges and promises can all be sacrificed.”
A party can make whatever pledge it likes in its manifesto to win votes. However, as we saw with the tuition fees and tobacco advertising promises, once in power, the euphemistically termed “British interests”, will determine which policies are enacted or changed.
According to Red Star research, in the late 1990s Tesco executives featured on six government task forces, more than for any single company. It made “contributions” to all the main parties, allowing them to “hedge their bets”. Tesco is not unique in this, nor is this specific to Britain. Its the DNA of Capitalism.
When Tesco faced the threat of a new £40million bill for a proposed car park tax by the last government, lobbying firm, LLM – involved in a campaign on behalf of Tesco to block plans for a tax on shopping centre car parks – suggested that they help bailout the labour government’s politically embarrassing millennium dome project. Labour subsequently dropped the car park tax proposal. Ben Lucus of LLM claimed that this probably saved Tesco £40 million in new taxes.
The businessmen don’t even have to be British to influence the British politicians. Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian steel magnate got the UK Prime minister, Tony Blair to use his influence to buy a Romanian steel company for a measly £125,000 donation to the Labour party.
Donors gave more than £50,000 to the Tory party, entitling each donor a face-to-face meeting with David Cameron and other senior Tories. This was not illegal, but this is how influence is won. Such people don’t need to vote to gain influence nor do they need to be citizens.
Most of this happens out of the public view. It only becomes an embarrassment and obtains a “cash for whatever” title when it becomes public.
“Elections are merely a fig leaf to hide the real rulers”
These embarrassments have plagued all parties. Few are ever charged with any crimes, because rarely any crimes have been committed. This is how democracies work in Britain and elsewhere.
What the British public need to realise is that elections in a democracy are never fair. The electorate are led to believe they are the king makers through the ballot box, but it is the rich and powerful who decide the policies and political programme after the government is elected.
The election is merely a fig leaf to hide the ugly capitalist dynamics that lurk behind the democratic façade. In fact, in a democracy the election is the least effective way to affect change. Compare the thousands who voted for the Liberal Democrats and their promise on tuition fees with Bernie Eccleston who without the vote changed the Labour manifesto pledge.
An election doesn’t change the dynamics of money and influence, it only changes the faces. Hence in a democracy “It doesn’t matter who you vote for the government always gets in”!