Polly Toynbee gets it right over cleaning up political sleeze

Johnson showed his cowardice yesterday when he refused to turn up at the Commons to defend his misguided blundering over sleeze. To make matters worse he didn’t wear a mask on a hospital visit.

Cleaning up politics is a stunningly simple task, glaringly obvious to anyone – except those 250 Tory MPs who voted last week to protect their own. What we need to do is take all the money out of Westminster and let parliamentarians live on their salaries as other public servants do. Just over a third of MPs took home £4.9m between them in outside earnings in the 12 months since March 2020.

Ah, we’d lose high-quality people by banning extra work, they say – yet how much would those paid “consultant” MPs be missed? Running the NHS, schools, Whitehall or councils, the public sector is packed with people of far higher calibre than the current crop of ministers. They work without fame but, like the better MPs, to improve society.

The recent scandal only passed as a “Westminster storm in a teacup” – the words of environment secretary George Eustice – because under Boris Johnson barely a week goes by without some new dishonesty: his government has made 43 U-turns since it came to power in December 2019, and most were disreputable. Keir Starmer, accusing the prime minister of “leading his troops through the sewer”, reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to bar MPs from directorships and consultancies; along with restrictions to stop ministers departing to companies through that corrupt revolving door. Lobbying pays good returns: compare Randox’s £8,000-a-month outlay to Owen Paterson, with government contracts worth almost £500m. (The company insists Paterson “played no role in securing any Randox contract”.)

Labour is perfectly placed to run a clean-up-politics campaign, led by a former director of public prosecutions and a frontbench unlikely to be caught pilfering. Back-to-basics campaigns risk exposing a wrongdoer in the ranks, but what matters is how parties respond. Labour has called for Claudia Webbe, the Leicester East MP, to resign – having already withdrawn the whip – after her conviction of harassment against a woman. But Paterson was protected by his leader, with Nadhim Zahawi sent on to the airwaves to defend him, admitting he hadn’t even read the excoriating standards committee report.

Out of wrongheaded tribalism, Labour has refused to give an independent candidate a free run in Paterson’s North Shropshire seat: there’s little chance the party’s candidate would win, so why not sidestep inevitable humiliation and help give the Tories a fright? Johnson’s polling has slid to its lowest level, his every policy indicator flashing red. But Labour fails to streak ahead. It’s time to accept that any general election victory will have to come with near-certain coalition with other progressive parties.

A first step in facing that reality would be to draw up a clean-politics charter with other parties and civil society organisations. Of course the Tories would refuse to join, but how would it look if all Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, SNP and Plaid candidates wore a clean-up politics white badge, but not the Tories?

An agreed charter could commit to expunging money, honours and bribery from Westminster. Tricky cases, such as Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP working shifts in A&E, or Nadine Dorries’ phenomenal book sales are not beyond the wit of drafters to work round.

Next, they should abolish political donations beyond the small sums that come from party members. If this means increasing public subsidy to political parties, it would be a worthwhile investment for taxpayers, ensuring that the few can’t buy influence: property developers have given the Tories £60m in the past decade. MP Margaret Hodge’s forthcoming report for King’s College London’s Policy Institute traces how laundered and dirty donations mean “corrupt money corrupts politics”.

A charter should pledge a wide-ranging royal commission to give Britain a written constitution, now that Johnson has broken what was left of the honour and tradition supposedly glueing those unwritten conventions together. Starmer’s leadership campaign commitment to a democratic second chamber is more urgent than ever, with open Democracy and the Sunday Times revealing the going rate for peerages: 15 of the last 16 Conservative party treasurers donated at least £3m and got the ermine.

Transparency was meant to let in sunlight, the best disinfectant, but only 41% of freedom of information requests by the public are granted in full, part of a downward trend. Yet transparency isn’t enough: the National Audit Office has no power to act on its stream of shocking reports on government malfunction. It needs teeth. The current elections bill is also a travesty, giving government effective control over the independent Electoral Commission, allowing it to impose penalties on what it determines to be third-party election campaigning – say from the TUC or Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, one backbencher told the Financial Times that some Tory MPs were informed “they would lose funding for their constituency” if they failed to vote for Paterson – flagrant corruption.

A pact on a clean-politics charter isn’t the electoral alliance many of us favour, and the terms of any constitutional commission would have to be agreed by a post-election coalition. But if Johnson wants a culture war to distract from his corruption, economic failures and weakening public services, bring it on. A renamed statue or a “woke” National Trust initiative is a weak weapon compared with combating the culture of Tory snouts in the trough.

Cleaning up politics is neither left- nor right wing, when Tory wrongdoing will keep bursting into the headlines as long as Johnson stays in No 10. The standards committee chair, Chris Bryant, goes as far as to say to me that the threatened removal of independent checks and balances means “we might as well have Viktor Orbán running Britain”. The Tory barrister and politician, Quintin Hogg, famously once warned of an “elective dictatorship” and that’s Johnson’s way – stuffing every post with yes people. Labour needs to go at this hammer and tongs, not with lawyerly caution but sounding the klaxon on the corruption of democracy.

This article was written by Polly Toynbee of the Guardian whose authorship is fully acknowledged. This was such a strong and effective article that I felt that I could not better it so have reproduced it in full.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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