The government is understandably furious about the maladroit claims made to undercover reporters by former transport minister, Stephen Byers, that he was ‘a bit like a sort of cab for hire’, able to influence serving ministers for a small matter of £3,000 to £5,000 per day. Alongside similar claims made by his former ministerial colleagues, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon, such suggestions of being able to help shape or sway policy decisions in return for private payments strike at the very heart of the accountability upon which the democratic process depends.
Many commentators have pointed out the UK still lacks effective regulation of political lobbying, despite a series of scandals reaching back over many years – from the ‘cash for questions’ scandal of 1994 (when it was claimed that the lobbyist Ian Greer told Mohamed Al-Fayed that ‘you rent an MP like you rent a taxi’) to the ‘Ecclestone’ affair of 1997 (when, supposedly in return for a £1m donation to the Labour Party, later ignominiously returned, Formula One was exempted from a ban on tobacco advertising) and the ‘cash for honours’ investigations of 2006-07 (which explored the alleged link between political donations and life peerages).
The standard interpretation of such scandals is that they undermine public confidence in politicians and the political process. And they do. Evidence from a recent Eurobarometer survey (2009) shows that that a strikingly high proportion of EU citizens (78 per cent average across the EU27) see corruption as a ‘major problem’ in their country. In just three countries (Luxembourg, Sweden and Denmark) did fewer than half the respondents agree. The UK figure stood at 74 per cent, with just 22 per cent disagreeing, compared to 65 per cent and 28 per cent respectively just two years earlier – the fourth highest increase in the EU over that period. Those seen as most likely to be corrupt were politicians at national level, followed by officials awarding public tenders and those issuing building permits, then politicians at regional level. The parliamentary expenses scandals appears to have had a clear impact, with the number believing that there is corruption at national level in the UK jumping from 44 per cent in 2007 to 62 per cent in 2009.
In practice, according to the 2009 survey, just 9 per cent of respondents across the EU27 had themselves been directly exposed to any form of corrupt activity over the previous twelve months, and in the UK that figure was just 3 per cent (the second lowest of any country). But impressions about corruption are garnered from news stories of precisely the kind we have seen over the last few days, and from the righteous outrage they give rise to amongst reporters and political commentators.
So there is a very widespread belief that corruption is rife, and it is to be found in particular amongst politicians. Does this really matter? At one level, it could be argued that concern about corruption and its consequences is generally overplayed. The received wisdom is that reports of corrupt behaviour erodes confidence in political institutions and in the political class, leading to citizen disengagement from politics. And yet there is some counter evidence. In many established democracies, the long term decline in voter turnout at elections witnessed since the early 1960s appears to have either slowed or even reversed since around 2000. And in Italy, where corruption has long been seen as virtually the stock-in-trade of the political process, Silvio Berlusconi still enjoys an approval rating of over 40 per cent in spite of being almost permanently mired in scandal and facing street protests involving tens of thousands of citizens. One explanation may be that most Italian voters have already discounted corruption: they are so used to it that it no longer registers as a significant factor in their assessment of the political class. It seems that the greater the number of scandals over time, the less impact they have. We may simply be getting used to the idea of our politicians being involved in shady business; whether it affects how we vote is another question.
Paul M Heywood