Just over twenty years ago, when I lived and worked in China for a while, the first question at lectures for managers and officials was always–“how much corruption is there in your country?” I used to reply “not much,” and while that?s still true in relative terms–Britain is not Nigeria or even Italy–it?s getting more difficult to be so dismissive. The long-running MP expenses scandal has damaged the already low credibility of the political class. Then, over the past weekend, reports surfaced that three ex-Ministers were caught in a media sting in which they were offering to sell their influence to the highest bidder.
Compared to the United States, where corporate power is often all pervasive, this may seem like small beer, but unlike real ale, it leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth. What is doubly depressing is that most of the MPs and all of the ex-Ministers are Labour. In the 1990s, the party got a lot of mileage from accusations of Tory sleaze, though much of this was the usual Minister caught in a love triangle after proclaiming family values. Now the sleaze boot is on the other foot, though it seems that Labour doesn?t do (much) sex, but it does do money.
The party leadership and MPs are supposedly incandescent with rage about ex-Ministerial follies, though I suspect that the anger is as much directed at the sheer stupidity of Stephen Byers and co. for getting caught in the sting so close to an election. For all the anger, I doubt whether anyone was really surprised. New Labour is, by and large, a moral vacuum. This is not so much a case of individual motives and machinations but more about the dominant political culture.
New Labour defined itself by a rejection of ideology in favor of “what works.” Setting aside the inconvenient fact that they did a lot of things that didn?t work, strong value systems are a potential bulwark against doing stupid things. But it?s not a simple case of pragmatism. If there was one thing that New Labourites believed passionately in, it was the superiority of the market and the virtues of wealth and the wealthy. While old Labour was not above the odd bit of corruption, particularly on a local level, those with their fingers in the till probably knew it was wrong. Byers and the like only know it is wrong when they get caught.
As Polly Toynbee says in today?s Guardian it is hardly surprising given the example set by Blair and Mandelson that their followers also lost their bearings. She goes on to say that the events are about understanding public service.
It?s this contrast that has partly offset my gloom in the last few days. On Saturday, I attended a reunion for Liverpool University students, who in 1970 were involved in a high-profile occupation focused on issues including the racist, pro-apartheid Chancellor (Lord Salisbury), secret files, and university investments. The subsequent disciplinary action against ten students (including the BBC’s Channel Four broadcaster Jon Snow) were the harshest ever handed out by university authorities (see: http://senatehouseoccupation.wordpress.com/).
I had some misgivings about the event, from the worry that it would be a leftist nostalgia-fest to the sheer terror of meeting people–many of whom hadn?t seen each other for forty years. Okay, it was a bit nostalgic and scary. But it was also heartening, warm and funny. Almost everyone has retained their progressive views–though as a couple of speakers noted, they are far more likely to be (left) social democrats than revolutionaries these days.
Laughter followed my observation comparing the manifestos of the right-wing and left-wing (me) candidates for the student union presidency that year. While my opponent called for “more medium-sized meeting rooms,” I had demanded “the overthrow of capitalism starting with its servants in the university.” A tad over-ambitious perhaps? But what struck me above all else was the good sense and good values of those present. Yes, they are a little battle-weary but they are still determined to make a difference. Most had given a lifetime of public service as teachers, community organizers, social workers, and the like. Many had given up on the Labour Party.
I haven?t, but who can blame them? There are still a good number in the British Government and Parliament who have also maintained their commitment to progressive public service. They need to make their voices heard amidst the recent scandals and the shambolic, self-interested last gasp of the New Labour project.