Ian Birrell: The end of privacy in British politics

A new age of transparency is coming, thanks to technology, and those who pay lipservice to it must be prepared for scrutiny too

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Bumping into a trade union leader last week, we got chatting about the London mayoral election upon which so much now hangs for the two main party leaders. He was downbeat about Labour's hopes of recapturing the capital, so I asked him what he made of the candidate. "Honestly?" he replied. "The man's a total slimeball."

Ken Livingstone is a Marmite politician: loved by some, loathed by others. He is also a machine politician, like many a successful civic leader, who created a formidable operation designed to put him into power and keep him in power, regardless of the intentions of his party. This is a man, after all, who thwarted Tony Blair at the peak of his popularity.

Last week his spluttering machine ran out of steam. After weeks of twisting and turning over his tax affairs, he was forced to stick his head in the noose he had made for himself. Three years ago he declared: "No one should be allowed to vote in a British election, let alone sit in a Parliament, unless they pay their full share of tax." Now that his own creative accounting has been exposed, the stench of hypocrisy is overpowering.

For all his many faults, Livingstone has played a part in shaping Britain for the better. He championed controversial causes such as gay rights in the face of vicious hostility when he first ran London; this was a time, remember, when the Liberals ran homophobic smear campaigns in by-elections. And he introduced the innovative congestion charge when returning as mayor.

Curiously, his greatest legacy may be his self-immolation. For while almost certainly destroying his hopes of return to office, and undermining Labour's fightback against the coalition, he has changed British politics. In America, the release of financial records by candidates seeking office is commonplace; now this practice will be transplanted on to our own rather-sickly body politic.

It is fitting this flared up in the fight for London mayor. Given Westminster's reluctance to relinquish power, the job is little more than a glorified transport commissioner, someone to wave the flag at the Olympics. We are witnessing round two of a cartoon contest between Ken and Boris, a pair of caricatures that captured public attention. It is a personality contest, which is why character matters; how many Londoners, after all, could name more than one policy at stake?

Now we know Boris offers a beacon of hope to Britain's beleaguered journalists, taking home a hefty half million pounds a year – but at least he pays his fair share of tax. As does Brian Paddick, the candidate who shows how far the Liberal Democrats have progressed during Ken's career. The former deputy assistant police chief also exposed the stunning profligacy of public sector pensions – pocketing £63,397 a year after retiring at the aged of 49. May the force be with you, indeed.

Given the current climate, with politicians mistrusted, reverse snobbery on the rampage and righteous anger over tax avoidance, those standing for election must prepare to find their earnings in the spotlight. Already George Osborne and Vince Cable claim they are happy for ministers to publish and be damned; with their positions on repugnance of tax abuse and power of transparency, they could say nothing else.

Now expect to see party leaders publish financial returns to steal a march on rivals, while bank statements will become another weapon brandished by candidates in close-fought constituencies. It is worth noting that this year also sees the arrival of elected police commissioners and spread of city mayors; many will be hard-fought beauty contests between prominent local figures.

The impact seems obvious. Politics will become dirtier and more demeaning. Already, we have seen Andrew Mitchell, the wealthy International Development Secretary who spends his days arguing for taxpayers' money to be sent abroad, skewered over dodgy investments. More people will shy away from entering the political arena, reluctant to be mauled over private finances on top of having everything else in their lives picked over.

But it is also right. We live in an age of transparency, when technology is tearing down walls and changing relationships. Academics are learning the power of mass collaboration. Businesses are learning the fragility of their brand and need for more openness. Consumers are discovering their strength. Politics must adapt to this new world order. After all, if politicians preach that "rich bastards" just don't understand public anger over tax avoidance, then turn out to be both wealthy and use highly creative accounting, voters have the right to know this before casting their vote. Don't they, Ken?

It is also inevitable. Perhaps we should follow the lead of Norway and just put everyone's tax records in the public domain; certainly, this might end British embarrassment over earnings. It might even help to close pay gaps between male and female, black and white, disabled and non-disabled.

Regardless, given the pace of technological change, many experts believe privacy will soon be a thing of the past. Among them is Mike Lynch, founder of software giant Autonomy and regularly described as Britain's Bill Gates, whom I heard last year predict we are only years away from a world so wired that there are no secrets.

The death of privacy would change not just politics, but all human relationships. Lynch says it is irrelevant whether we like the idea or not: we need to start discussing what it means to live in a culture in which citizens and governments can hide nothing. This has extra relevance given the latest rows over secret courts and civil liberties.

Such a vision may be science fiction, or it may be the future. At the very least, Livingstone has hastened the day when politicians have fewer financial secrets. Knowing they face scrutiny, they will have no option but to behave in a defensible manner. This will not stop at income; it will encompass investments too. Maybe Lords who list paid consultancies will have to disclose their clients as well.

If we are lucky, this might even lead to more grown-up discussions over money and success than the puerile politics of envy so prevalent at present. Given the state of the economy, we need all the wealth creators we can get. And every member of the House of Commons is, after all, a high earner compared with the majority of Britons, let alone those on the minimum wage or benefits.

Three years ago, Ken Livingstone fired a typically cheap shot that has backfired in spectacular style. It looks likely to have fatal consequences for his career. But inadvertently, he may have performed a selfless public service to the nation.

twitter.com/@ianbirrell

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