On Monday, it was revealed that the Labour former home secretary Jack Straw and Conservative MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind had been caught by a journalists’ sting operation, which showed them offering their services and connections to a fake Chinese company. Both men have significant influence in Parliament and the political sphere, and unsuspectingly offered to share that with the journalists.
Whilst there is some question over whether the men have done anything wrong by the standards of parliamentary rules, there is a much more important debate to be had about MPs’ ‘second jobs’. In conversation with the Chinese ‘businessmen’, Rifkind commented that “nobody pays me a salary. I have to earn my income”. Later, on the Today programme, he conceded that it was a silly thing to say, and that he was referring just to his “business interests”.
The whole affair illuminates the shady revolving door which operates out the back of the Palace of Westminster, where businesses can affect government policy by paying lobbyists. MPs are moonlighting as pimps for their address books – renting out their contacts for fees of up to “£8,000 for half a day”.
Unfortunately, there is an assumption that the £67,000 MPs earn isn’t a ‘proper’ salary – that business money is needed make up the difference. There are several issues here that voters should be angry about.
In reality, MPs don’t get ‘advisor’ roles because they have some insightful business knowledge. It’s no coincidence that some of the highest consultancy fees are paid to people who also happen to be MPs. It is precisely because of their position that their services are solicited by the big names in business. They are being paid for the people they know and the influence they have. Needless to say, that influence is given to them by the British people, and they are paid a salary for the position that they hold. The £67,000 Malcolm Rifkind brushed off with a Rolex-clad hand is the money we pay him for his job. The idea that he should be able to use that job to generate even more wealth is just an exploitation of the system that elected him. That’s not a ‘business deal’. That’s corruption.
On the other end, it’s worth remembering that firms wouldn’t shell out such figures if they weren’t getting a decent return. Lobbyists such as Straw and Rifkind can influence laws and policy to help out their city friends. This, again, just breaks the system we elect them to run. We, as voters, expect the Government to act as a moral arbiter, to do what is best for us. In a representative democracy like ours, they are acting equally on behalf of every voter in the UK. Of course, when a company pays them to alter that behaviour, the political umbilical cord between the politician and the voter is severed. Democracy no longer functions correctly because they are representing other people unequally. Money, in essence, is the true decider of influence.
It’s also worth remembering that this relationship works the other way. Parliament’s revolving door also deposits bankers and business people into the laps of our policymakers. Look at how the Government legislates on banking. In order to be well-informed, it hires advisors. But these aren’t people elected by the people, to make laws on our behalf. These are the best of the best in the world of finance, and guess where they’re working? The city.
The ‘big four’ firms in accountancy (KPMG, PricewaterhouseCooper, Deloitte and Ernst and Young) are the prime picking-place for parliamentary committees looking for advice on lawmaking. Realistically, MPs can’t be expected to know the nuance required to set every piece of legislation, so they get in some help. The problem is, these companies are the very ones the laws are being set for. It’s equivalent to getting a child to set their own bedtime: it was never going to work.
So with an excellent knowledge of the relaxed laws on finance (because they set them), bankers and financiers return to the city to continue to make oodles of cash, on top of the money paid to them in consultancy fees. Everyone’s happy – except those who lose out when bankers exploit the law and get it wrong. That’s us, again.
The relationship between business and politics is an abusive one. And like many abusive relationships, the ones who get hurt are those who are powerless and who rely on the abuser. The average British voter commits democratically to Parliament in good faith, and sees that commitment wasted and exploited by those at the top. Whether MPs are advising on business, or businesses advising on policy, we are the ones who lose out. Lobbying should stop. Let’s lock the revolving door.