From Apathy to Outrage: Why Political Corruption Matters to the Left

by Tom Scriven

5 June 2016

During the last general election an extremely fortuitous ‘administrative error’ by the Conservatives led to substantial and illegal over-expenditure in 33 constituencies, most of which were marginal seats that the Tories went on to win. This was a significant piece of luck given the Conservatives’ slender majority in parliament, which consists of a working majority of only 17 seats. With ten police forces and the Electoral Commission investigating, this will likely snowball into a substantial political controversy that may even result in new by-elections. This good luck continued as most of the media decided that it would be inappropriate to report on a story that was subject to a criminal investigation – although they were also notably quiet about it when it was not a criminal investigation.

The overspend is a red flag in itself. Irrespective of whether or not it was an ‘error’, it’s serious cause for concern. But moreover, it is part of a pattern of behaviour indicating that the Tories plan to use this parliament as an opportunity to significantly rig the political system in their favour. Changes to the electoral register, the removal of MPs and the re-drawing of boundary constituencies, the packing of the House of Lords with new Tory peers, the removal of treasury funding to opposition parties and the Trade Union Bill have all directly attacked Labour and increased the Tory prospects in 2020. As the Telegraph acknowledged shortly after the 2015 election, the Tories were seeking to “lock Labour out of power” for “decades”, leading to a situation that the former Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker called a “one party state”. As he went on to suggest, the Tories ‘bought’ the last election.

These new allegations of electoral fraud against the Tory party are part of a wider perception of political corruption. It was catalysed by the expenses scandal in 2011, but reaches further back into the recurring ‘sleaze’ crises of the John Major government and Tony Blair’s failure to be any different. The list of lobbying and payment scandals in Parliament since 1997 is extensive – and as such, the prescience of Cameron’s perceptive statement in 2010 that lobbying was the ‘next political scandal’ is hardly surprising. His own inclusion in the Panama Papers is starkly illustrative of the incestuous financial culture of the elite, and the way that this culture and parliamentary politics freely bleed into one another. Politicians are currently the least trusted profession in the country, below estate agents, bankers and lawyers. Dissatisfaction with political parties has increased over recent years, fuelling the rise of the racist extreme right. The investigation into overspending at the general election is unlikely to change this. Whether criminal conduct is proven or not, it is an exceptionally damaging set of allegations.

The rise of the far-right, in particular the startling successes of Ukip, indicate that corruption and the disillusionment it causes are issues the left needs to tackle. However, the left has a problematic attitude to corruption that can be seen in two extremes. Some on the softer left attack it as evidence that the elite are not ‘playing by the rules’; as a betrayal of the democracy that various movements and activists fought to establish and secure. In effect, this reduces class conflict to the opposition of different moral values – the morally pure people on the one hand, who are fair and rule abiding, versus the debauched and criminal ruling class. Others tend to hold aloof from it, viewing it simply as a superficial aspect of capitalism, and criticising those concerned by it for ignoring the real issues with society – issues that Engels once called the ‘facts’ of capitalism. The reality is a little bit more complicated. Corruption is a key issue in British politics because, since the 1700s, it has been a fundamental means by which its political system has operated and social control has been secured. Britain is, and always has been, an oligarchic kleptocracy, and the left spent the best part of two centuries constantly contending with this system not only to bring about political reform, but also so that social and economic change would be possible. The British far-right thrives because the Labour party steadily abandoned the critique of corruption that once formed an integral aspect of working-class political culture. It is therefore imperative that this territory is reclaimed, both as a defensive measure against the right, but also as popular basis for a rejuvenation of an anti-capitalist left.

‘Old Corruption’ and the development of the left.

It is remarkable that the years within which Britain can really be labelled anything like a functioning democracy are notably small – being between 1928, the year universal suffrage was won and property qualifications finally redacted, and the collapse in legitimacy signalled by the massive decline in voter turnout during the Blair years. Prior to 1928, the British political system functioned according to complex systems of patronage, deference, and local control, famously labelled by the radical journalist William Cobbett as ‘Old Corruption’. Landed aristocrats would extensively bribe the electorate with money, food and drink (or simply threaten them with eviction or the boycott of their trade) in order to return puppet candidates who would work in their interest in the House of Commons. Violence and intimidation, through the services of hired mobs, was frequently deployed by one candidate against the other. The treasury was plundered to fund the electoral expenses of men whose return was vital for the sitting government, such as Cabinet ministers. Pensions, sinecures, and positions within the government were all granted to men to ensure their loyalty, or repay services rendered. When radical, reform-minded candidates were elected they were very often bought off with government positions. Whereas other nations had immense spy forces and often resorted to direct force to manage dissent and quell unrest, the linchpins of social control within mainland Britain were such burlesque forms of corruption. Bribes, backhanders, favours and threats formed the sinews of the elite and allowed them to influence and control the classes beneath them.

These practices were not limited to the infamous ‘pocket boroughs’, the long-dead towns and villages where the electorate did not even reach double digits. In modern values the average cost of elections ranged from tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds per candidate, all due to a mixture of legal and illegal expenses. Unsurprisingly, in many elections most constituencies simply went uncontested, as no-one could be bothered with the expense. Nor was this solved with the Great Reform Act of 1832, the year that Britain apparently became a modern democracy as the middle-class joined the aristocracy in the formal political elite. Bribery began to decline only after the 1880s, partly because of the implementation of the secret ballot and partly because the inclusion within the electorate of sections of the working-class in the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 made elections exorbitantly expensive. Both the ballot and suffrage expansion had been the most prominent demands of working-class activists since the 1830s, and it was chiefly this militancy and organisation, sometimes in alliance with the more moralistic of the bourgeois Liberals, that gradually loosened the control of capitalists and aristocrats on the political system. Nevertheless, corruption scandals, voter intimidation, and bribery at elections continued well into the 20th century, particularly amongst the isolated and vulnerable farm labourers. The buying and selling of government positions and seats in the House of Lords in particular is the most visible continuation of this system.

Throughout the 19th century corruption was therefore the most consistent and direct way for the governing classes to retain the elitist and exclusive political system. In effect they secured their position by repeatedly buying the consent of lower-class electors and non-electors. Because of this the working-class left, that galvanised and developed over the course of the century, bound up its critique of industrial capitalism with an associated critique of political corruption. Such corruption was the point at which economic power was converted into political power, and therefore needed to be challenged if the working-class were ever to control the development and direction of industrialisation. This fact is overlooked by the liberal left, which over-emphasises the political reformism of movements like the Chartists or the Labour party, and by the harder left, which focusses solely upon their socialist credentials. In reality, after the ‘betrayal’ of the limited reforms of the 1832 Reform Act, the working-class left critiqued an elite formed of those who fiercely guarded a monopoly over land and capital. In its most radical phases, it came to see this political system not simply as an evil in itself, but also as the means through which capitalism was defended and facilitated.

Because of this, the British left saw wholesale political reform as the initial step in a far broader social and economic revolution. As one Chartist leader stated in a speech, the implementation of the People’s Charter would lead to workers having “plenty of roast beef, strong beer, and plum pudding by working three hours a day.” Similarly, while social and economic reform was crucial to early Labour party politics, the continuing hostility to systemic political corruption remained an important aspect of its discourse and critiques. The militant hostility directed by Labour at the House of Lords was not just a moralistic criticism of the behaviour of its members for its own sake, but also an important strategic consideration. The Lords was a bastion of Tory power which operated according to constant corrupt interactions and favours which were thoroughly traditional. The left attacked corruption to ensure its own independence and ability to open spaces in which it could enact progressive social reforms.

Tony Blair and the New Whigs.

In 1841, a Bribery Act was passed by parliament in an effort to make corruption at elections far more difficult. It was immediately followed by one of the most corrupt elections of the period, one so bad that the Westminster Review wrote that the “annals of parliamentary warfare contained no page more stained with the foulness of corruption and falsehood than that which relates the history of the general election in the year 1841.” A decade later, the 1852 Corrupt Practices at Elections Act was promptly followed by a general election in which, according to one Lord, there had not been a previous election “at which more bribery and corruption had prevailed.” Reflecting on this, Karl Marx made the observation, as true today as then, that corruption at elections was “another form, as brutal as it was popular, in which the relative strength of the contending parties showed itself.” Corruption was not merely a problem within British politics but an aspect of its structure, a particularly theatrical form in which contests amongst the elite took place and they secured the consent of the governed.

However, in an age of mass-politics, such consent was harder to secure, and corruption was now leading to widespread disillusionment with parliament – and not only amongst those excluded from formal participation. As Marx also noted, the 1852 election saw a notable decline in voter turnout. The reason, he concluded, was because of the ‘apathy of the privileged constituencies’, which was not “against politics in general, but against a species of politics, the result of which, for the most part, can only consist in helping the Tories to oust the Whigs, or the Whigs to conquer the Tories.” As a consequence, many middle-class electors, like the working-class non-electors, turned towards extra-Parliamentary politics as the only viable way of enacting and enforcing change.

A similar process to this observation has developed in Britain since the 1990s. Tony Blair was elected in 1997 claiming that his government would be ‘whiter than white’, but almost immediately it appeared that Labour had accepted £1m from the head of Formula One in exchange for exempting it from the ban on tobacco advertising. Tony Blair went on to describe himself as a ‘pretty straight sort of a guy’, although the New Labour years became synonymous with corruption scandals, the most significant being the revelations in 2006 that they were offering peerages for financial supporters, and the police investigation into the party in 2007 for accepting anonymous donations via third parties.

By the end of Blair’s final term it was clear that the party had embraced corruption as systemically as the Tories, and in retired life the Blairs have established a family cottage industry in property, shell companies and tax avoidance. This is not to say that Old Labour was without it controversies, especially in the post-war period as it settled into its role as a party of government, a role very often at odds with its own membership and body of support. Equally, the behaviour of Labour’s MPs and councillors has not suddenly improved following the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the position of leader. However, the Blairite wholesale rejection of the politics of anti-corruption and social redistribution facilitated the development of apathy. It was under Blair that voter turnout dropped below 60% for the first time in the era of universal suffrage (prior to 1997 it was normally in the high 70s). Since social equality and opposition to elitism and corruption were the core tenets of the British left for almost two centuries, the abandonment of these principles once again set mainstream politics up as the Whigs versus the Tories.

The consequences of this were notably similar to the situation outlined by Marx in 1852. The rise of extra-parliamentary agitation, such as anti-globalisation and environmentalism, was a clear feature of the Major and then New Labour years. However, more recently disillusionment with corrupt and unaccountable politics has taken the form of something else, noticed by Marx in the same essay. In the weeks leading up to the 1852 general election, the Tory government banned Catholic religious processions throughout the country, “in order to inflame bigotry and religious hatred…the No-Popery cry was raised everywhere.” Such an atmosphere would primarily benefit the Tories, seen as the party of Anglicanism and the most virulently opposed to Catholicism and migration. In the week before the election several days of anti-Irish rioting occurred in Stockport, which left one 23 year old Irishman dead. Such racist populism has become one of the key electoral strategies of the Tories and Labour and the terrain over which they have fought for the last decade. The justification for this has been Ukip’s success (following the BNP and the EDL), but this was because they had seized Labour’s former role as the voice opposed to corruption and self-interest within the political system, not because they reflected a deep-seated, ‘authentic’ racism within the working class. The increasingly bad-tempered, brutish and racist nature of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum underlines the danger of widespread disillusionment continuing to be channelled into ultra-Toryism in 2016, especially as an increasingly feral Nigel Farage recently channelled Enoch Powell when he threatened violence as the inevitable consequence of a vote to remain.

Farage has shown signs that corruption, particularly in its political and electoral forms, is going to be a major emphasis of Ukip’s campaigns in the future. In May 2015 he accused the Tories of engaging in fraud in order to beat him in South Thanet.  Kent police investigated and decided that there was no case to answer, but now that the constituency is implicated in the Tory overspend he is unlikely to leave the issue alone, even if he declined to officially complain so that he did not come across as a ‘whinger’. In the Oldham by-election last October he accused Labour of postal vote fraud. While he is not the only person alleging that this fraud is extensive and largely beneficial to Labour, he is notable for racialising the issue in language that can only really be described as fascist:

“There are some really quite big ethnic changes now in the way people are voting. They can’t speak English, they have never heard of Ukip or the Conservative party, they haven’t even heard of Jeremy Corbyn. I’m commenting on the state of modern Britain, post mass immigration. It means effectively that in some of these seats where people don’t speak English and they sign up to postal votes, effectively the electoral process is now dead.”

Postal voting fraud is not going to go away, and a major scandal is more than likely just around the corner. However such fraud is not, and will never be, the exclusive terrain of migrant communities.  Just as the generally corrupt nature of parliament and the wider elite has become Ukip’s ground by linking them however tenuously to migrants and foreigners, the left needs to prevent electoral fraud becoming an issue monopolised by racists as well. One obvious starting point would be to highlight how Ukip are fabulously corrupt, illustrated most recently by the election of the disgraced ex-Tory MP Neil Hamilton as a Welsh Assembly Member.

Corbyn and left anti-corruption: our only hope?

The Labour right flirted with Blue Labour at the beginning of Ed Miliband’s leadership, and it is this form of racist mug populism that will dominate the party should Jeremy Corbyn be expelled without establishing a powerful left. In the meantime, Corbyn is equally a response to the disillusionment that followed New Labour, as to the corruption that underpinned such a process. Labour right were replaced with a figure from its far-left who comes across as impeccably well-mannered and principled, and explicitly promises a ‘new kind of politics’. Recent polling has shown that Corbyn is edging ahead of Cameron in ratings of approval and trust, while polls have illustrated that on issues such as wealth redistribution and nationalisation Ukip voters are actually far to the left of Ukip’s fervent neoliberalism. This bodes well considering that when the vote shares from the local elections since 2013 are compared, it is evident that this year, the Ukip vote continued on a downward slide. Preventing the return of Blue Labour and re-occupying the anti-elitist terrain that Farage has saturated with racism and empty, completely hypocritical, rhetoric on corruption is a crucial task for the left.

How the left does this is important, as it needs to be carefully pitched between the extremes of a moralistic notion of class conflict on the one hand and an abstract, purist neglect of corruption since it ‘is not the real issue’. Those in the former camp who warn that our ‘hard won democratic freedoms’ are under threat are only putting forward a partial analysis of British politics. It is equally true to state that the Tories are merely continuing the nexus of corruption and authoritarianism that has always characterised democracy in Britain. The left has constantly grappled with this political system, and while it is certainly the case that it forced important political concessions from the elite over the past two centuries, these were rarely ends in themselves and were usually perceived as the first step in wider social and economic change. Liberals neglect the fact that the working-class left fought corruption because it was used to impede other objectives, not simply because corruption was evil in itself.

For the same reason, leftists cannot discount corruption as just a superficial aspect of capitalism. It is important to recognise that it is a fundamental aspect of the way British politics has historically developed, and opposition to systemic corruption has been such a crucial part of the left and the Labour party. Its abandonment in the 1990s simply fuelled the rise of the far-right. Most importantly, senses of indignation, outrage and disillusionment all play off of material conditions. Apathy and anger with the elite are fuelled by actual inequality and exclusion, just as misguided complaints about migration are very often based on actual problems with housing, pay or employment. Reclaiming the politics of anti-corruption from the right is possible while also outlining why there is far more to it than corruption alone. Picking battles that demonstrate that corrupt and immoral bosses and politicians are the common enemy of both ‘British’ and migrant labourers is a clear starting point. It may not be the terrain we want to fight over, but the expansion of Ukip shows there is little choice. Corbyn is a good beginning, but opening a space to the left of him that takes apathy and disillusionment seriously, rigorously attacks racism, corruption, Ukip, and Blue Labour, while also painting the way to a future of less work and better standards of living is a crucial task of the British left.

Photo: Sony200boy/Flickr


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