The good people at Sky News and Tortoise Media have launched the Westminster Accounts: a new publicly available database that provides, for the first time, an opportunity for voters to easily explore parliamentary financial data. You can see how much has been donated to MPs, to parties, and to All-Party Parliamentary Groups – and from where.
Sam Coates, Sky’s Deputy Political Editor, suggests the database represents “a major experiment in transparency and public accountability”. Prompted by the Paterson affair, the Westminster Accounts is a powerful tool for those who believe the existing system regulating MPs and their incomes is not fit for purpose. Although MPs may not be interested in shining a light, in Coates’ words, “on how money moves through the political system”, this database forces these questions onto the table.
The plan is first to make easily available all that information that MPs have a duty to declare but no interest in publicising, and then for Sky to spin it out into a series of stories about what the numbers reveal. Who receives what from where? What has been obscured, or overlooked? What networks of donations exist? How can MPs’ earnings be compared?
No initiative, however well-meaning, can avoid a cursory raise of the ConHome eyebrow. After every sleaze scandal, we are told that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Although Sky and Tortoise may claim no specific political motive, the journos doth protest too much. Yes, sunlight can be an excellent disinfectant. But too much of it can give you sunburn.
Sky and Tortoise may get all Pontius Pilate when it comes to their approval (or lack thereof) of MPs having ‘second jobs’. This initiative will only provide more grist to the mill of those campaigning for a ban, without answering the question of what a ‘job’ entails. Can being an MP really be considered a job, if you can combine it with being a minister? These questions go unanswered.
More importantly, privacy and secrecy are two different things. As long as MPs are allowed to hold ‘second jobs’ – or at least make earnings outside of their parliamentary salaries – and can accept donations towards printing leaflets, contributions towards All-Party Parliamentary Group reports, or enjoy corporate hospitality, and can report all of these earnings to a regulator that makes that information public, does it also need to be plastered across the headlines?
The idealisation of transparency has, paradoxically, helped make our political system more opaque. Tony Blair has long lamented his introduction of Freedom of Information requests. Those seeking to publicise every last act going on within government departments or committees forces MPs and ministers onto WhatsApp and post-it notes if they don’t want every act of political sausage-making to be seen.
Not only does that make Anthony Seldon’s life more difficult, but it hides decision-making behind even more of a veil than previously existed. The suggestion that MPs or Ministers cannot live a life unexamined by Tortoise’s graphics teams adds further intrusions to a job that, compared to those also available in the social milieu of the average politician, is already rather dour. Initiatives like this may well put off even more talented people from going into politics.
We are confronted with the nightmare scenario often lamented by our Editor: a professional politician class, reliant solely on their parliamentary salary, increasingly disconnected from the world outside the bubble. They will be hemmed in by the Sue Gray-ification of politics: an ever-increasing network of rules and regulations seeking to ensure that no MP ever has any conversation or meeting that cannot be listed in triplicate on a government website. Slowly but surely, our representatives become impotent cogs in a wider bureaucracy.
This brings us to the most important objection. Seeing who seeks to donate to our MPs might provide more of an impression of how networks of influence in British politics work. But MPs and their donors are but a very small part of a much more complex web of influence both within, adjacent to, and outside of the state: the lobbyocracy, if you will.
In a basic sense, all politics is lobbying. Power is not exercised through the hierarchical model of school textbooks, with a Prime Minister and Cabinet at the top, and a compliant civil service machine beneath them. It comes through a messy, confusing, and oft-impenetrable combination of words in ears, hospitable lunches, texts from an interested party, interminable meetings, bureaucratic inertia, state-private-public institutional anomalies, and more.
How do we even begin to measure and understand all this? Sure, making a funky website where you can look at how much your MP made last year might be a start. But how do we quantify and compare that with, say, the impact of 38 Degree campaign, the lobbying of party donors, or the idiosyncratic initiatives of constituents? Indeed, how do we compare the power of one donor over one MP with the influence that a news organisation has, whether that is our humble selves or, to pick an example from random, a leading broadcaster like Sky?
One thing is for sure. Although the occasional newspaper editor might sit next to the occasional minister at a swish Tory dinner, anybody who donated to the Conservatives with an interest, say, in building more houses or ending efforts to make England smoke-free by 2030 might be rather miffed by their returns. That is in much the same way in which party members fulminate against a government that has nominally been in power for almost 13 years but failed to make the country more conservative.
This raises the question of who really has power, and why getting anything done in government is so difficult. Call it the Enemy Class, Officialdom, Blairism, or the Blob. That hotchpotch of governmental institutions, state-funded bodies, think tanks, charities, and the rest of the six degrees of Shami Chakrabati exercise more control over the daily business of government than many a backbencher or minister.
The problem that confronts both transparency enthusiasts and influence-hungry donors is that illustrating and exposing this nexus is far more difficult – and controversial – than creating a funky spreadsheet of MPs’ earnings. Tackling groupthink, tracking the quango-cracy, or producing die über org chart of how the country is really governed is a task beyond most within the SW1 ecosystem – especially if they form part of that nexus themselves.
So for all these well-meaning exercises in transparency, the Blob will continue on its merry way whilst MPs of varying probity (and income levels) come and go. Unless our Deputy Editor leads his British Meiji Restoration to clean out our institutions (backed, I’m sure, by the clear-sighted offspring of Munira Mirza’s latest endeavour), this near-impenetrable status quo will persist. For all the fulminating about transparency, our political system will remain remarkably opaque.