As President Obama promises to crack down on lobbyists and their ilk, it’s perhaps instructive to read what George Monbiot has to say about a government that came to power making similar promises. From his regular Tuesday (it’s still Monday here in Boston) Guardian column:
This lobbying scandal confirms it. The dying days of Labour are upon us
A party elected to stamp out collusion has abjectly failed. Now, expect it to be mired in sleaze claims, as the Tories were in 1997
The Guardian, Tuesday 27 January 2009
So the circle is closed. The government that won a landslide in 1997 after Tory MPs were revealed to have taken cash for parliamentary questions now faces far graver allegations: cash for laws. Along the way, almost every policy that distinguished it from John Major’s corrupt and pointless regime has been abandoned.
The difference between these two moments is that now there is nowhere to turn. There are the minor parties, but they have been systematically excluded by another broken promise: the failure to reform the electoral system. New Labour has engineered the worst of all worlds; it has sustained a system that ensures only one of two parties has a chance of power, and it has rooted out the policies that made a choice between the two worthwhile. At least when the Tories were in government we could dream of something better.
It is fitting and unsurprising that the scene of the new scandal is the unelected second chamber, whose proper reform Blair and Brown have spent 12 years avoiding. The deregulation of the banks, the love affair with the neocons, the failure to tax the rich, Peter Mandelson … is there any slithering cop-out that has not now returned to haunt this government?
The premise of Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost–that Blair’s premiership was the creation of a foreign intelligence service–is correct in spirit if not in substance. For 12 years the British government has acted as an agent of other powers: the US; big business; big money; anything except the electorate. It is hard now to believe that it was elected in a frenzy of hope very much like the excitement surrounding Barack Obama.
Tomorrow, with impeccable timing, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency launches its campaign in parliament for public scrutiny of the contacts between legislators and professional hustlers. There’s a major lobbying scandal about once a month, and no one who is aware of the government’s failure to regulate this industry should be surprised. It was elected to stamp out sleaze, but since 1997 has done almost nothing.
So do our noble lords, unmolested by the law, routinely put the interests of business above those of the people who didn’t elect them? As SpinWatch records, in 2007 some were selling parliamentary passes to lobbyists for defence, transport, freight and legal companies. That October the Labour peer Lord Hoyle admitted being paid by an arms company rep to introduce him to the minister for defence procurement, Lord Drayson, although Lord Hoyle was subsequently cleared by a House of Lords committee in May 2008. Last year, Lady Harris gave a researcher’s pass to Robin Ashby, whose company lobbies ministers on behalf of BAE Systems and other arms manufacturers. Lady Harris is paid by Mr Ashby as an adviser to another company he runs.