Tuesday, 23 March 2010


Who had called for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership back in January? Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon. And before that in June 2009? Stephen Byers. And which three retiring MPs have just been suspended because of the Dispatches sting? Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon and Stephen Byers. That could be an interesting coincidence.

I did watch some of the Dispatches programme yesterday. As with any sting, the experience was squirmingly embarrassing, as it always is when we do anything secret and underhand, leading people into a false sense of security, then observing them. It was especially embarrassing for Byers.

All three claim not to have done anything wrong, since the job interviews that had been set up for them were for work after they had left parliament. And there is this to be said for them: the fake company that had advertised was pretending to be a lobbying firm. Access was the whole point and though the MPs will have stepped down by the time they took the job they would still have access to Parliament. Lobbying is the exercise of influence. Knowing that, the MPs naturally played up their contacts.

The question was whether it was legal to lobby from a privileged position as an ex-MP. Who, then, is entitled to lobby? Is lobbying something to be approved of? How are pressure groups to make their opinions known? How do you prevent some groups gaining an unfair advantage? How do you define fairness and enforce it? Big money can always call on more influence. But big unions and consumer groups can also exert influence in the same way. The balance is the question.

Lobbying can, of course, very quickly become corruption, especially when it comes to payment. On the other hand, if you go for a paid job as a lobbyist it is odd to have a fuss made about cash for access. That, as I understand, is the job. It was not a job for now, but for after. Hence, under the current system, it was not illegal.

Nevertheless, it is not morally edifying. In fact it is pretty disgusting.

Do you get suspended for being unedifying, then? Do you get suspended for being a nuisance? Or do you change the rules?

I am not at all concerned to defend the MPs in question, or the practice itself. But there is the question of undeclared overseas trips to come. The expenses scandal has already run like a plague through Parliament. I don't think 'tough action' now - especially when suspected to be opportunistic - is going to be of much help in the plague wards.

Just the following observations to myself:

1. Long administrations generally lead to a blurring of lines and the beginnings of corruption. It was the same with the Tories before 1997. This isn't an ideological issue but a pragmatic one;

2. I don't imagine the cleansing of the Blairites will lead to a more leftward leaning party. It is still the party of Peter Mandelson in charge;

3. Righteous feeding-frenzies always have an uneasy element of hypocrisy, though that doesn't mean that a purge (I use the word advisedly) is not sometimes called for;

4. These particular suspensions are somewhat shady in themselves;

5. General cynicism in politics is a bad thing. Scepticism is wiser than cynicism, it's just that scepticism is multi-directional. It is not altogether stupid to be sceptical about ourselves. Cynicism is emotionally satisfying in the short run but deeply corrosive in the long run.

I persist in thinking that politics can be, and is, more often than generally thought, an honourable calling, even when those who are called are fallible and can, over time, become corrupt, sometimes without even recognising it.

The better answer might have been not to suspend the three and focus all attention on them, but to let them go, then firmly close the door on the practice.

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