The Sleazy State: Political price of misconduct is no deterrent: The Voters' Reaction
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt. As Political Editor and then Chief Political Commentator, he previously covered the John Major and early Tony Blair era. He has written for the Daily Express, Sunday Times, Times and Sunday Telegraph, and Sunday Correspondent. He is the author of Mandelson and the Making of New Labour (2000).
Wednesday 16 March 1994
It is important, first, to distinguish between electoral and political importance. To take one example, the Scott inquiry engages all the political gears. From the Prime Minister down it has consumed endless man hours; its findings are expected to be of sufficient moment that senior ministers now expect any reshuffle to be postponed until after it has finished.
There is no point in doing it earlier - straight after the Euro-elections for example - if Scott is going to claim ministerial scalps. And even Kenneth Clarke - who is not expected to be a casualty - raised the stakes in January by telling John Prescott, the Labour employment spokesman, he would resign if he was shown to be at fault over signing Public Interest Immunity Certificates. Last week he said that if anybody could sustain the argument 'that ministers joined together to try to get innocent men in prison for some extraordinary reason, then I would resign'.
Electoral importance, however, is a different matter. These are not issues which generate letters to MPs. And some ministers draw a distinction between Pergau and the Scott inquiry. As one put it this week: 'Most people in my constituency, if there was a choice between tying aid to British exports and jobs, and not, they would prefer the first.'
That may offend some; in areas of high unemployment it is understandable. On the other hand he agreed that any suggestion of ministers being prepared to send innocent men to jail would be damaging.
The view that such issues are not galvanising the voters is not confined to Tory MPs. One Labour MP, asked if these issues were crucial in his constituency, answered wearily: 'Compared with doing battle with the council housing department, vandalism on the estates, getting your social security benefit, and dog excrement on the pavements, no, quite honestly.' There is one further point - that the Government's troubles over Pergau and Scott were generated in the Thatcher, and not the Major, era. Mr Major, moreover, set up the Scott inquiry, which Margaret Thatcher might not have done.
However, there is a deep cynicism prevailing about politicians. Voters are, to a surprising extent, both contemptuous and tolerant of all politicians.
An interesting survey by Mori at the beginning of the year on 'Back to Basics' showed that 52 per cent of electors thought that MPs put their own interests first - and their constituencies, their country and their party (which came second, at 26 per cent) well behind.
At the same time it showed that an even bigger majority (53 per cent) thought that if a minister had committed a 'serious moral or financial indiscretion' in his private life he should not resign if the behaviour was private, legal and he performed well as a minister.
Journalists criticise politicians for untrustworthiness at their peril. Another Mori poll shows that journalists are rated lowest in the trust league table, with only 10 per cent 'generally' trusting them to tell the truth. Politicians fare slightly better with 14 per cent; but government ministers are at only 11 per cent. Moreover ministers have dropped since 1983 from 16 per cent.
Bob Worcester of Mori said: 'The cynicism of the public is such that hardly anything surprises them about politicians.'
According to Mr Worcester, the public would also 'expect the other lot to do the same if they had the chance'. He says pundits and the media tend to underestimate the extent to which the sleaze factor is a 'zero sum game' in shaping electoral change.
For it to bring an electoral advantage to the opposition parties, there has to be an alternative which the electors respect as sleaze-free - and there is not. On the other hand, Mr Worcester said, a 'culmination of forces' could persuade people to conclude that 'enough is enough' and that we may be getting close to that point. (If the allegations about misuse of influence by the Monklands council in John Smith's constituency assumed the proportions of a national scandal that could weigh as a counter factor.)
Mr Worcester took a doomsday view of what a defeat in Eastleigh would mean for the Tories on top of the local and European elections. He thought that 'sleaze' may have been a factor in a dramatic conversion of the middle-class away from the Tories - in findings which for the first time show it split evenly between the two parties.
But another leading pollster Nick Moon, of NOP, said that while a succession of scandals can certainly help to reinforce an Opposition's assertion that it is 'time for a change', electorates have a short concentration span. If - perhaps thanks to a few sackings or resignations - Mr Major could draw a line under public scandals, and they did not run as big stories through an election, then they may count for naught in the campaign.
There is room for believing, Mr Moon said, that 'the collective memory of the electorate is about three weeks'. It is worth remembering that Westland, probably Mrs Thatcher's darkest hour, was followed by a resounding election victory the following year.
The real, if unpalatable, truth may be this: that in a climate in which popular expectations of politicians are chronically low, the electorate takes a self-interested view of what it can achieve.
In such a climate, living standards, taxes and job prospects will count for more than the standards of public life; in 1994 law and order on the streets is more important to the voter than honour and decorum in the corridors of power.
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