Thursday, 27 October 2011

Politics: bought and owned

A persistent criticism of the Occupy protestors is that they don’t have any clear demands, that there’s no obvious focus to the protest, no five point manifesto. To some extent, this misses the point. The point of the protests is to shift the Overton Window, to reframe public debate, to identify problems and to demand that those problems are tackled, not ignored. It’s antithetical to the nature of the protests to demand specific solutions, because the protests are organised around consensus, and it’s not the job of the protestors to impose a solution on everyone else. The protestors want to initiate debate but for people - the 99% - to take wider ownership of the discussion of what solutions might address the problems identified. That’s the bigger job - as Slavoj Žižek says in the Guardian: “There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – not questions of what we do not want, but about what we do want.”

But we can’t do that if society, government, politics sticks its head in the sand, and refuses to recognise that there’s a problem.

Hence the protests.

One of those problems is the fact that our political culture is corrupt. Not corrupt in the crude way of brown envelopes stuffed with money - although that goes on - but corrupt in the sense that political culture is shaped - overtly or covertly - by corporate money.

That’s on two levels - the individual level, and the party level. Parties are mindless animals, which exist for one reason only - to perpetuate their own existence. Political decisions are taken, not because they are in the long-term interests of the nation, not because they are the morally right thing to do, not because they help those in society who most need help, but because those decisions will help that party get re-elected. For an example, look at the setting of the budget. Austerity early in the life of a parliament, sweetners as re-election looms. To continue perpetuating their existence, political parties need money. A lot of money.

And there’s no shortage of corporate money to come flooding in. But they want something for it. And generally, they get it. So politics is further distorted, as policy becomes not just about gaining re-election, but about pleasing the donors whose money is vital in order to win re-election.

Against that, one voter, with one vote, is really of no interest at all.

The scale of this distortion is worse in the US, because the money there is bigger (in the run-up to his 2008 election, Obama received over fifteen million dollars in donations from Wall St firms like Goldman Sachs, BoA, Morgan Stanley and others alone). But it’s a problem in the UK too. The police investigation into cash for honours may not have been able to lead to prosecutions, but I have little doubt that for decades - centuries - one of the ways to a peerage is to put your hand in your pocket. The murky revelations around Liam Fox and his friend, and the corporate backers hidden away behind charities lift the curtain a little - just a little. Mandelson sitting on a yacht with Russian oligarchs or intervening on behalf of Indian billionaires making passport application. Andrew Lansley as Shadow Health Secretary, accepting donations from the chairman of a private healthcare provider. The recent round of party conferences where everything had a corporate stamp on it, ‘private dinners’ with senior politicans are organised by business (and which don’t have to be declared on the register of members’ interests) and there appeared to be more lobbyists than party members.

The revolving door that sees civil servants drafting policy and legislation and then - surprise! - leaving the civil service for jobs with companies that have benefited from that legislation. The fast-spinning revolving door that sees Ministers responsible for legislation and regulation and then - surprise! - there’s a non-executive directorship on the board, 40grand for two days work a month. Is that payment for what they’re doing now, or payment for what they did before they were employed?

Rich people get to be rich by not throwing away money for no reason. Donations get influence. Influence shapes policy. Policy shapes law and regulation - or lack if it. That is a corrupting of politics.

On occasion, it’s just plain old-fashioned corruption. The MPs' expenses scandal showed that many MPs were prepared to be shameless - and criminal - in sucking down cash from the public teat, so it is really unthinkable that would turn their nose up at some sweet, sweet money when it came from a company rather than the taxpayer? Anyone who thinks that doesn't happen should really ask a grown-up to hold their hand every time they cross the road.

So, coming back to the start, and what the protestors want, well there's one thing. A decoupling of politics from corporate paymasters and their lobbyists. And why do protestors have to protest? Well, this issue is a scandal now, a cancer gnawing away at the insides of our supposed democracy, and it has been for years, and here is what our political parties have done about it:

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