Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

The latest scandal, revolving around Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, both MPs and former foreign secretaries, has once again lifted the lid on the rotten, corrupt world of parliament - a true den of thieves. Adam Booth examines the "cash-for-access" scandal and the deep questioning of the system that such seemingly endless revelations are provoking.

“I can’t be expected to live on just £60,000 a year.” These are the sentiments of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Tory MP and former foreign secretary, at a time when the average worker in Britain is £1,600 a year worse off than in 2010; when the number on zero-contracts across the UK have increased to 1.8 million; and when the reliance on food banks has exploded. Once again the political class have been caught red-handed, further exposing the rottenness of the whole Establishment and the system they defend.

The latest scandal, revolving around Sir Rifkind and Jack Straw, another former foreign secretary, was exposed recently by undercover reporters from Channel 4 Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph, with both current MPs caught on camera accepting offers of money from a fictional Chinese business in exchange for access and influence in Westminster. Both men were open in stating the going rate for such services – a minimum of £5,000 per day.

Living on another planet

Despite announcing his intentions to stand down as an MP at the next election and resigning from his position as chair of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, it is clear that Rifkind feels little remorse or guilt for his actions, defending himself by saying:

“If you’re trying to attract people of a business or a professional background to serve in the House of Commons, and if they’re not ministers, it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their Parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000.

“That sounds a lot to a lot of people earning less than that but the vast majority of people of a business or professional background earn far, far more than that.

“If they’re told they have to choose one or the other they won't come to the House of Commons at all and Parliament will lose their skills.”

With such comments, Rifkind was echoing the words of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which last year provoked howls of indignation by suggesting that, whilst workers are seeing a cut in real-wages, MPs should receive a 9% pay increase, in order to ensure that there are “good people doing the job”.

Such frank statements say it all: these ladies and gentlemen of the realm consider themselves to be doing the country a great service by blessing us all with their presence in parliament. How noble and pious of them to give up a possible life openly serving the interests big business! Indeed, we should all be grateful that they instead choose to help their capitalist friends in secret: behind closed doors; in the shadowy halls of Westminster; and in the smoke-filled rooms of their private members’ clubs!

Some figures, such as John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, have a bit more sense, and have tried to admonish Rifkind for his “error of judgement”. “My attitude,” Bercow stated, “is people should be in parliament to represent their constituents and to stand up for principles and policies dear to them. People should not be in parliament to add to their personal fortune.” George Osborne, surprisingly, had similar sense in rejecting the need for a MPs’ pay-rise, when IPSA suggested that a wage increase was needed.

Indeed, even the Telegraph, the reliable mouthpiece of the Tories, has chipped in, warning the ruling class of the impact that such behaviour by MPs will have in fuelling the distrust and disenchantment with all the mainstream political parties. “[T]his episode has been less to do with regulations,” writes the Telegraph (25th February 2015), “than with the awful appearance it has given to voters of greed at Westminster – and not for the first time, either.”

“This, in turn, has nurtured a general disenchantment with mainstream politics that has manifested itself in the rise of what once were fringe parties, such as Ukip and the Greens. Much of their support derives from a “plague on all their houses” attitude fed by the apparent venality of MPs such as Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw.”

Others, however, have felt a strong class instinct to stand up for their own kind, with fellow Tory grandees Lord Lawson and Lord Heseltine – the former Conservative chancellor and deputy prime minister respectively – both declaring that they saw nothing wrong with earning thousands extra per year on the side of the MPs’ annual salary of £67,000 (plus expenses!). It of course comes as no surprise to see these two Lords sticking up for their Tory knight. The rich and powerful can always be expected to close ranks and protect their own.

The vast majority of people, who are forced to live on considerably less, and who have seen a consistent attack on their wages over the past decade, do not seem to have so much sympathy for Rifkind, Straw, et al. One only has to read the letters in the Metro from ordinary men and women to see the rightful ire and anger that exists towards these so-called political “representatives”, who clearly live on another planet and represent not the interests of the working class, but of the fat-cat capitalists.

“So Malcolm Rifkind says it is ‘unrealistic’ to expect people like him to live on £60,000 a year because they could earn more in business? If career advancement is the aim of politicians like him, then they should go into a different field. As MPs, they hold the honour of having power to change the world for the better. Is that not enough? Then move over and let someone whose interests stretch beyond their own pockets take your place and inspire a nation.” (Letter in the Metro, 25th February 2015)

“Someone please remind Mr Rifkind of what the government expects the rest of us to exist on,” states one reader from London. Another letter is even more scathing:

“I earn net around £1,400 per month, which, after bills, looking after my disabled wife and food, leaves me with nothing. As for a holiday, what’s that? Perhaps Sir Malcolm needs to downsize in home and lifestyle, like so many others have had to do in recent years. Maybe if all politicians did the same, the deficit will soon be wiped out. The Tories have made cut after cut; forcing many to live in poverty while politicians live handsome lives. Is it any wonder UKIP is growing in strength?”

This Rifkind and Straw affair, therefore, is yet another example of how extraordinarily out-of-touch the current class of politicians is from the lives the ordinary people that they are supposed to represent.

Never-ending scandal

After years of flagrant hypocrisy and disregard for the lives of ordinary people, MPs should not be surprised at the hatred felt towards them. The Rifkind-Straw “cash-for-access” case is only the latest episode in a seemingly never-ending series of scandals.

Over the past decade-or-so, the whole political establishment have been caught with their snouts in the trough, with various examples of “cash-for questions” and “cash-for-influence” scandals involving members from all the major parties and from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in which MPs and life peers have been found to have accepted money in exchange for asking questions in parliament or influencing law making.

Most notably was the revelation of the MPs expenses scandal, news of which broke in 2009, when – at the height of the recession – members of parliament from across the board were found to be claiming for ludicrous expenses at great cost to the taxpayer, as epitomised by the outrageous £1,645 claim by Conservative MP Sir Peter Viggers for a "duck house" pond feature. MPs from all the main parties had blood on their hands, with six Labour MPs and two Tory peers all found guilty of criminal charges.

Such expenses and “cash-for-access” scandals, however, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rotten, sleazy, corrupt world of parliament. In recent months, allegations of serial child abuse and political cover up have been revealed regarding former MPs and ministers, revealing a den of sin deep within the heart of the Mother of Parliaments.

Even more recently, we have had the discovery of links between the political parties and their tax-dodging donors, with the Tories gaining over £5 million in donations from those holding Swiss accounts with the offending bank, HSBC, leading Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, to rightly accuse David Cameron of being “a dodgy Prime Minister surrounded by dodgy donors,” and demand, “how can the Prime Minister explain the revolving door between the Tory Party and the Swiss branch of HSBC?”

Such revelations have become so commonplace and frequent as to become expected. This does not mean, however, that they now go unnoticed and ignored. Rather, this endless stream of sleaze and scandal is chipping away at the consciousness of workers and youth and undermining the political authority of parliament and the state in the eyes of ordinary people.

At the same time, the rampant and growing inequality in society – with the rich profiteering and tax-dodging, whilst welfare and wages are brutally chopped and attacked – is shining a light on the economic injustices of capitalism. The stench emanating from the Establishment – not only from politicians, but from the monarchy, the police, and the media also – further compounds this, leading to a deep questioning of the whole system – a questioning that was not there before. This has revolutionary implications.

The revolving door of capitalism

Miliband, however, would do to watch his words; for the “revolving door” of which he speaks is not merely between the Tories and their banker friends, but between the entire bourgeois political class and the whole capitalist system that they defend.

One only has to look at Miliband’s predecessors to see evidence of this: Tony Blair is now estimated to have amassed a fortune of at least £10 million since his time as prime minister, thanks to various “advisory” roles with the governments of Kuwait, Monogolia, and Abu Dhabi, not to mention his dealings with the autocratic regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. In addition, the former prime minister provides consultancy to major financial firms JP Morgan and Zurich International, whilst the Blair family is estimated to own a property empire worth more than £25 million. Indeed, some have suggested that Blair could be worth as much as £100 million, although he claims that he is worth less than one-fifth of this. So only £20 million then!

On top of this, Blair keeps a finger in the geo-political pie in his role as “Middle-Eastern Peace Envoy” on behalf of “the Quartet”: UN, EU, USA, and Russia. The (unpaid) position is extremely ironic for a man who is responsible for taking the country to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq – wars that have left behind a legacy of everything but peace, stability, and democracy. As Seamus Milne writes in the Guardian, “Tony Blair embodies the revolving door on a global scale. Once prime ministers know they can become rich if they play ball with the right companies and states in office, it will become a habit.”

As Milne comments, Blair is the epitome of the revolving door of capitalism; but the process is endemic across the whole of bourgeois politics. Whilst in parliament, politicians obediently and faithfully serve the capitalist class– either by being paid directly to provide certain services or influence or, more often, by subserviently (either consciously or unconsciously) voting for and carrying out policies that benefit the bourgeoisie, protect private property and profits, and uphold the capitalist system as a whole.

Hence the furore that is now being raised about the extent to which MPs gain additional income for private jobs alongside their parliamentary or constituency duties. Recent investigations into the matter have estimated that Conservative MPs gained an estimated £4.74 million from outside income, with Labour MPs “earning” £2.05 million. (Half of this total was accounted for by Gordon Brown, who was in fact the largest recipient of extra-parliamentary income in 2014, taking almost £1 million from appearances and speeches. However, this additional income – so it is claimed – went towards running various charitable projects that the former prime minister has set up, and thus he makes no personal gain from this money.)

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has stood firm in defending his rich Tory friends. It is not hard to see why: six of the biggest ten recipients of additional income are Conservative MPs; meanwhile, according to the Financial Times (23rd February 2015), “Some 180 MPs have second jobs, earning a total of £7.4m a year. Of these 112 are Tory MPs and 43 are Labour, which helps explain Mr Cameron’s reluctance to impose a crackdown.”

In order to justify this defence of his government of the rich, for the rich, by the rich, the Tory Prime Minister hilarious stated (without any intended humour) that “he was opposed to a complete ban on MPs’ outside interests, saying that these often enriched the knowledge base of parliament.” (our emphasis)

You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours: this is the motto of parliamentary politics, in which the same men and women switch place back and forth between government and big business – in many cases even occupying leading positions in both at the same time!

Indeed, as the example of the News of the World scandal – with the chummy relationships between Cameron, Rebekah Brooks, and Andy Coulson – demonstrated, the revolving doors and old-boys networks within capitalism extend beyond just government and big business, to all the pillars of the Establishment and throughout the capitalist system.

Once out of parliament, MPs continue where they left off, taking positions on the boards of directors of the major multinationals, gaining handsome profits from speaking at elite events, and providing consultancy to big business on how best to steer a course through the murky, labyrinthine world of Westminster in order to gain the ear and twist the arms of those nominally in power.

Such is the sham of bourgeois democracy, as Lenin explained in his great work on The State and Revolution:

“To decide once every few years which members of the ruling class are to repress and crush the people through parliament - this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics.”

For a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage!

Vice-versa, MPs are increasingly drawn from the ranks of big-business itself, with parliament full of former financiers, consultants, and lawyers. Furthermore, there is a proliferation of politicians that have no prior experience in life other than on think-tanks or as political advisors and assistants. Figures for the current parliament indicate that 25% of MPs are from the world of banking and finance originally; 15% were formerly political organisers; and a further 14% were barristers or solicitors. In other words, a total of well over half of MPs are either career politicians, or are recruited directly from a bourgeois, big-business background.

The current hated crop of politicians, who have the audacity to complain about the “chicken feed” that they live (quite luxuriously) on at the taxpayer’s expense, would do well to learn from the example of those Labour MPs, standing on a Marxist programme, who were elected to parliament in 1983 and then again (on an increased majority) in 1987.

These genuine representatives of the people not only stood firmly on the side of the working class, using parliament as a platform for the cause of workers’ struggles, rather than bending to the interests of the capitalists; but they proved which side their bread was buttered on by only taking home the same average wage as the workers in their constituencies, donating the remainder of their MP’s salary back to the labour movement.

At the same time, they refused to ingratiate themselves with the nepotistic networks and old-boys clubs that dominate Westminster, and instead involved themselves in the battles fought by the trade unions and working class communities from which they drew their support. These were men who did not seek out a self-serving career in politics, as so many do today, but who stood for parliament in order to promote the interests of the working class.

The task today is for workers and youth to mobilise and kick out this Tory-led government of austerity, and to fight throughout the labour movement for a socialist programme. Part of such a programme must be the demand for a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage: to put an end to this den of thieves; to rid parliament of carpetbaggers and career politicians; and to have political representatives, drawn from the working class, who actually represent the interests of the 99% rather than those of the 1%.


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