"The formal electoral process has become a game, behind which the realities of politics are played out in a manner which bears little resemblance to democratic accountability..."Corruption scandals cost politicians votes, so goes the conventional wisdom. Try telling that to Silvio Berlusconi, a man almost synonymous with scandal, but who emerged as the big winner from last week’s regional elections in Italy. What does that tell us about the electoral impact of corruption? One reading might be that it shows voters don’t really care about accusations of corruption amongst their political leaders. The reputation of the political class is now so low across most European democracies that citizens more or less expect them to be involved in corrupt activities. And over time corruption scandals, like most scandals, lose their capacity to shock: what once generated outrage now elicits indifference. So, although voters may have been disgusted by the recent parliamentary expenses scandals in the UK, they are less likely to have been wholly surprised: for many, it will have represented confirmation of what they already suspected about the behaviour of their representatives.
However, even if citizens do become gradually inured to corruption within the political class, there is another reason why we should remain very concerned about its impact. In the post-communist era, electoral politics in the developed democracies has shifted from ‘selling ideologies’ to ‘selling leaders’. For although voters may increasingly expect their politicians to be corrupt, the political game itself demands a rhetoric of denial. The focus of election campaigns is increasingly on the honesty and trustworthiness of leaders, presented in contrast to the alleged dishonesty of their opponents, rather than on what they actually stand for.
This is doubly damaging for democracy. It reduces electoral competition to little more than a political beauty competition, where voters are being sold a confected ‘package’. Witness the recent focus on the wives of the main party leaders as extensions of their appeal. We are invited to get to ‘know’ our political leaders, as if they were characters in a national level soap opera, leading some commentators to talk of the ‘trivialisation’ of politics. An even more insidious problem is that this undermines comprehension of the real complexities of the political process and the capacity of politicians to effect change. There is an inevitable ratcheting up of increasingly implausible claims about what can be achieved, with political leaders trading promises that are almost bound to fail. That can only add to a sense of cynicism towards the political process as voters are increasingly turned off. In some countries, notably in the former communist world, such trends have opened the way to the emergence of ‘state capture’, whereby firms and other private bodies shape the laws, policies and regulations to their own advantage. The formal electoral process has become a game, behind which the realities of politics are played out in a manner which bears little resemblance to democratic accountability.
For all the recent hoo-ha around the claims by former ministers like Stephen Byers and others, it is highly unlikely that they are really in a position to ‘sell’ policy change to the highest bidder. But, even if their attempts to trumpet their self-importance were little more than bluster, the line between lobbying and improper influence can easily become blurred. So far, in addition to well-established and mainly effective parliamentary procedures, a strong and largely independent media has helped ensure that the UK retains sufficient scrutiny of the political process for it to be difficult to ‘buy’ policy. But there is no room for complacency.
Professor Paul M Heywood