CURRENT revelations about the Tory Party election spending scandal and the Panama Papers leak that exposed David Cameron’s family tax-avoidance scheme are once again raising fundamental questions about the corruption of public life in Britain.
The spotlight on high-profile tax avoiders, in particular “Dodgy Dave” and the alleged election frauds, are important moments of exposure for the Tory Party.
Yet they are really only signs of a much deeper crisis in British politics. Those moments of exposure should also alert us to much broader concerns about corruption in a system of doing politics and doing business that no longer even pretends to distinguish between “public” and “private” interests.
An increasingly collusive relationship between government and businesses at the heart of Westminster politics has wholly undermined public trust in democratic institutions and called into question the integrity of public officials charged with serving the public good.
In particular, “revolving door” appointments between the public and private sector and the role of private companies in public functions have the distinct whiff of something rotten in the state of politics.
To explore what the British people think about these issues, we commissioned a YouGov survey in collaboration with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.
The survey asked a representative sample of people in Britain what they thought about a range of practices that are now routine in government and politics. Their response was clear.
- 73 per cent said that the practice of ministers accepting corporate boardroom appointments on leaving office should be banned - 75 per cent said that the practice of senior civil servants accepting corporate consultancies should be banned - 62 per cent said that inviting private corporations into government to help shape the regulation of business should be banned - 68 per cent said that current PFI [private finance initiatives] arrangements for public projects should be banned.
There is enough evidence, then, that some policies that restrict the power of big business would be very popular.
Our results indicate that the majority of the British public want the revolving door to stop spinning — they want politicians and senior civil servants to be banned completely from profiting out of the experience and contacts they gained in public office, and they don’t want private companies to be involved in making decisions about the regulation of business.
A large majority also want an end to the PFI contracts that create crippling debts for the taxpayer.
Importantly, our survey revealed some results in areas that Labour will need to expand its support in significantly. In Scotland, our results indicate even stronger opposition to government-business collaboration:
- 82 per cent of the Scottish public want the practice of ministers accepting corporate boardroom appointments on leaving office to be banned - 83 per cent want that the practice of senior civil servants accepting corporate consultancies to be banned - 69 per cent want the practice of inviting private corporations into government to help shape the regulation of business to be banned - 76 per cent want current PFI arrangements to be banned.
Given that the electorate in Scotland is much more decisive on those issues, we should ask why the collusive relationship between government and business has not been a major concern of Labour in Scotland.
Why has it not been a major election issue there? After all, the SNP is the party that has consistently promised to reduce corporate tax below even George Osborne’s bargain basement rate, and this week announced that it was putting the former chairman of RBS Scotland in charge of its review of business rates.
Our results indicate that both of those policies will be deeply unpopular. This is a policy area in which considerable ground might be regained from the SNP by parties willing to confront, rather than cosy up to, big business.
Our survey results also indicate that Londoners are also keen to see an alternative to pro-business politics.
- 67 per cent of Londoners want the practice of ministers accepting corporate boardroom appointments on leaving office to be banned - 71 per cent want the practice of senior civil servants accepting corporate consultancies to be banned - 59 per cent want the practice of inviting private corporations into government to help shape the regulation of business to be banned - 64 per cent of Londoners want current PFI arrangements to be banned.
Of course, this is the same electorate that Sadiq Khan won over. He used an explicitly pro-business strategy in the mayoral election and is likely to use his victory to force the Labour Party to shift back to the right.
Yet our results show that those are not necessarily the policies that won him London. Londoners want exactly what the overwhelming majority of the British people want: to get rid of the normalised collusion between business and government and the ways that it undermines any prospects of achieving a more equal society.
As our survey indicates, banning revolving door appointments and abolishing PFI-type arrangements would be both a populist and realistic way of rebuilding a serious political alternative.
- David Ellis is a post-doctoral researcher and David Whyte is professor of socio-legal studies, both at the University of Liverpool. Their survey Redefining corruption: Public attitudes to the relationship between government and business is published by The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.