Thanks to the recent Channel Four Dispatches exposé ‘Politicians for hire’ three former cabinet ministers have been summarily suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party on Gordon Brown’s orders.Brown thinks that by acting with such speed he may dampen down popular anger. He has certainly outflanked David Cameron in terms of appearing tough. Leaving aside the Lord Ashcroft scandal, his party is riddled with PR consultants, lobbyists and business interests. Nor has he moved against Sir John Butterfill, who was caught red-handed by Channel Four trying to sell his parliamentary services to a US company. But understandably the main focus has been on the three former New Labour ministers. Stephen Byers boasted of being “like a cab for hire.” As former chief secretary to the treasury, secretary of state for trade and industry, and secretary of state for transport, local government and the regions, Byers clearly has the knowledge when it comes to Westminster and Whitehall ... and certainly appeared prepared to share his connections if the price is right. The right price for him is between £3,000 and £5,000 a day.
Ex-premier Tony Blair has led the way in raising these stakes, despite powers that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) formally holds to prevent former ministers taking jobs that trade on their past government posts. In place of nebulous ethical concerns, Blair is laughing all the way to the bank after trousering £20 million since resigning as prime minister. Does anyone seriously suggest that the ‘expertise’ he is alleged to bring to his current work is not informed by his time as premier? Now Byers claims Blair as his best mate, well able to wheel him into a business get-together ... for a fee. So a gruesome double act seems set to hit the corporate boards, if Byers can be believed. But then Byers has anyway had a lucrative extra-parliamentary career since resigning as a minister in May 2002. Not only has he been employed by Consolidated Contractors International (which he declared to the Commons authorities), but has also done work for National Express (not declared) and Rio Tinto Zinc in Kazakhstan (also not declared). Boasting to the undercover Channel Four reporter, Byers claimed he managed to persuade Lord Adonis, the current secretary of state for transport, not to press for the full amount National Express should have coughed up for getting shot of East Coast Mainline. This meant that, although the company lost £72 million in penalties last year, it was saved the £500 million that it should have paid.
By his own account, Byers was truly their saviour and richly deserved any rewards. This is, of course, all on top of the tens of thousands of pounds Byers gets as a former minister’s golden handshake when he leaves the Commons next month, plus a pension that most OAPs can only dream about. Joining Byers in Brown’s exemplary sin bin were Hewitt and Hoon. Patricia Hewitt MP, another loyal Blairite, was secretary of state for trade and industry and minister for women and equality, and subsequently health secretary. While still an MP she somehow finds time to work for BT, Boots, Barclays, and Cinven, Bupa’s parent company. Cinven alone gives her around £60,000 for a total of 18 days ‘work’ a year.Hewitt knows all the wrinkles when it comes to avoiding falling foul of the distinctly toothless oversight body, Acoba. She listed five ways of ‘how to lobby without appearing to’ when prompted during the Dispatches programme. Geoff Hoon MP, who resigned the cabinet position of transport secretary last June, has almost done it all, having also been defence secretary, minister of state for Europe, leader of the House of Commons and Labour chief whip. The fact that he has been round the parliamentary block and is currently reviewing Nato defence strategy means he has great potential in the business world, especially for companies vying for lucrative arms contracts. And the man is certainly not averse to searching out his own business opportunities, something he charmingly describes as “Hoon work”.
Showing that if you are going to whore you might as well do so as brazenly as possible, Hoon even appears to be ready to work for US defence behemoths that might pick over European small-fry arms contractors in the coming months of likely takeovers. It is all quite a sorry tale, but after the money-grubbing expenses farrago that still rumbles on, this may not overly shock an already jaded electorate. What it does yet again, though, is emphasise the mismatch between our vaunted parliamentary democracy’s alleged representational nature and the sordid actuality. The sight of politicians growing fat on the crumbs thrown at them by capital rather spoils the cosy picture painted by liberal constitutionalists. But in reality, as Blair demonstrates, there is a very thin dividing line between what is considered normal and acceptable contacts and dealing between business and politicians and what is considered corrupt. That is why the trio of ex-ministers can claim that they have done nothing wrong and hope to be believed. Somewhat strangely, the Socialist Workers Party at the time of writing has failed to say anything about the ex-ministerial trio’s punishment, even in its supposedly up-to-date online commentaries. The Socialist Party in England and Wales, on its website, for the most part uses the suspensions as another reason for casting the Labour Party into the nether regions, anathematised and untouchable. Its Dave Nellist is reported as saying: “In a party that sold its soul to big business more than a decade ago, is it any wonder that its senior figures put personal gain above integrity?” Perhaps the soul that comrade Nellist refers to is the loss of the ‘socialist’ clause four from the Labour Party’s constitution - truly a chimera that transfixed many a so-called Marxist. By coincidence, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition issued a press release on the three former ministers’ disgrace that was, word for word, what appeared on SPEW’s website.
Our conclusions are rather different from those of SPEW. For, despite all, there is still a strong trade union link to Labour, something that no amount of splutter by SPEW can hide. In fact the Labour Party remains what Lenin called a bourgeois workers’ party. It is the very reason why we shall confront Labour candidates at the general election over two crucial issues - Afghanistan and cuts - in order to draw class lines. The Labour Party is an arena where working class needs and interests can still have some purchase. Indeed on March 24 the Daily Mail ran a lurid story on “BA strikers and a plot to control Labour”. The chief plotter being Graham Stevenson, Unite national organiser and a prominent member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. While it is impossible to treat the Daily Mail seriously, it is quite clear that in the event of a bad general election defeat in May or the formation of a national government the Labour Party could swing violently to the left. However, comrade Nellist, the Tusc candidate for Coventry North East, does make an apposite comment in the SPEW/Tusc press release: “As a Labour MP between 1983 and 1992, I accepted only the wage of a skilled worker, donating the rest of my parliamentary salary to labour movement campaigns.” And it is with such healthy sentiments that all Marxists would seek to distinguish themselves from the money-grubbers who infest the House of Commons, of whichever party.
Not only is it essential that working class representatives receive no more than the average wage or salary of a skilled worker rather than the current MP salary set at two and half times that level. We would extend that principle to trade union officials such as Graham Stevenson, Bob Crow and Brian Caton. So it is a weakness in Tusc’s platform that there is no mention of limiting the pay or bringing the trade union bureaucracy under democratic control.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.