The subtle ways that money distorts the political reality of Blair's Britain

Some argue that rich people are pouring money into our politics out of 'a desire to put something back'. Well, it's possible
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The Independent Online

Oh, how we smirk. When we look at the McWorld of American politics - where both major parties are financed, fuelled and fine-tuned by corporations and the mega rich - we feel a warm, smug glow. Senator Barak Obama recently noted: "I belong to the smallest caucus in American politics. The non-millionaires." The rest, he said, have been feeding at the corporate teat for a very long time. Bette Midler even dubbed America "the Land of the Fee". Is there a single Brit - from left to right - who does feel a vague sense of superiority when they hear this tune?

Oh, how we smirk. When we look at the McWorld of American politics - where both major parties are financed, fuelled and fine-tuned by corporations and the mega rich - we feel a warm, smug glow. Senator Barak Obama recently noted: "I belong to the smallest caucus in American politics. The non-millionaires." The rest, he said, have been feeding at the corporate teat for a very long time. Bette Midler even dubbed America "the Land of the Fee". Is there a single Brit - from left to right - who does feel a vague sense of superiority when they hear this tune?

Lose the smile. We're moving in the same direction, and faster than most people have realised. In Britain, the wall between our public and private spheres is rapidly changing into a revolving door. Look, for example, at Alan Milburn. He is in charge of Labour's general election manifesto and he is among the most influential men in British public life. But his recent career is also an example of the blurring between public and private interests.

This weekend it was revealed that, as soon as he quit as Health Secretary in 2003, Milburn walked into the arms of a string of private firms, including companies who directly profited from Labour's health policies. His total corporate takings in the year he was out of office totted up to £85,000 and a luxury holiday in the south of France - in addition to his parliamentary salary. Milburn was even paid £25,000 by the parent company of Alliance Medical, which received a £100m contract from the NHS to provide mobile MRI scanners.

It is becoming increasingly common for public servants to leap into the hands of private interests, and back again in this way. Between 1996 and 2004 there were strict rules - imposed in the wake of Tory sleaze scandals - that made it possible for independent watchdogs to stop this from happening. Tony Blair wants to put the watchdogs to sleep. He personally over-ruled them to ensure that Air Chief Marshall Sir John Day - a top RAF officer - could go to work for BAE Systems, the arms dealers. Blair even considers the current rules - which permitted Milburn's Whitehall-to-boardroom hopping - to be too strict and has ordered a review.

The result is clear. Even when they are working for the Government, many public servants must now have half an eye on their potential private employers. This is not good for us, the public, who look to government in part to protect us from overweaning corporations. Won't it now be harder for Milburn to criticise the corporate agenda of health companies?

And funnelling money directly to senior politicians isn't the only way that corporations can try to skew the public sphere in their own interests. Half of the Labour Party's funds and a clear majority of the Tory Party's bank balance comes from corporations and the ultra rich. We were given a rare public hint of their massive influence when Iain Duncan Smith was toppled as Tory leader two years ago. It was not his MPs or his grassroots party that began the movement to depose him - it was a handful of the Conservative Party's biggest donors.

Some people argue that these fantastically rich people are pouring money into our political system out of "a desire to put something back". Well, it's possible. But the altruism of billionaires and corporations seems like a pretty thin thread on which to hang our public life, especially when you bear in mind their reluctance to perform much more basic public duties - such as paying tax.

Yes, you might reply, but why should we care? So a few rich people try to rig the system - what's new? Let's look at just one of the many areas where all this cash is harming British people right now. If I were to tell you about an easily implemented policy that directly benefits 7.4 million voters and is supported by 82 per cent of the electorate, you would assume that our politicians would battle to implement it. If I then told you that most of the beneficiaries are those hard-to-attract female voters, many in Middle England seats, you would assume that Blair and Howard would seize this territory.

But in the middle of a general election campaign, I bet you haven't heard a word about extending basic workplace rights to part-time workers. A Trades Union Congress report released yesterday tried to shove the issue into the election debate. It showed that part-time workers were often paid artificially low wages and "trapped in low-paid jobs with poor prospects". The TUC argued that giving these workers greater rights would help the British economy in the long term by ensuring we had a better-trained, more motivated workforce.

So why - given the potentially massive electoral benefits - have none of the major political parties come out for this? Simple. Part-time workers don't earn much. They don't have swish lobbyists and massive advertising budgets, only the funds put up by weakened trade unions. They can't pay thinktanks to produce "research" that "proves" their case, or wine and dine journalists to make their case. The business lobby - which on this issue, remember, speaks for a paltry 14 per cent of the British people - can afford all this and more. They can produce reams of "evidence" showing that business will have to flee Britain if "prohibitively expensive" workplace rights were extended to part-time workers.

It's all a myth. Most part-time workers are in cleaning, education and catering. You can't send your office to the Philippines to be cleaned, or contract out hospital canteens to Indonesia. The truth is that the business lobby doesn't want to pay for greater training or more flexible hours because it will hurt their short-term profits. So - on this issue as on many others - they use their concentrated wealth to compensate for their lack of public support.

That's the reality of British politics in 2005: a tiny group of the rich with the support of fewer than one in 10 people can, in practice, veto a very popular policy that would benefit some of the poorest people in Britain.

The risk all this money poses is not so much direct corruption, where politicians bung contracts to specific corporations, it's a more subtle problem: that the corporate agenda becomes taken for granted by all politicians because it is the source of their donations and much of their income. In this situation, social democratic policies - such as extending workers' rights or increasing the minimum wage - become almost impossible, as they have in the US.

If we want to turn back from this steady Americanisation, the only solution is to build a Chinese Wall between the public and private spheres. It's not hard. Introduce full state funding for political parties, and ban private political donations. Ensure there's a buzzing public sphere - paid for out of general taxation. Introduce strict rules stipulating if you want to be a minister or a civil servant, you should be forbidden from taking a private job in the same sector - ever.

Sadly, Tony Blair is taking us in precisely the opposite direction - so prepare yourselves for a slow, steady slide into McGovernment, folks.

j.hari@yahoo.co.uk

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