One thing that may act as a thorn in the side of the new Parliamentary cabinet, during their three years in office, will be election fraud. During the 2015 General Election, the Conservatives over spent on campaigning in 33 constituencies, most of which they then went on to win. I would like to address the potential consequences of this in a future blog post, but needless to say the scandal is telling of the tendency of mainstream political parties towards corruption. In this parliament alone we have seen changes to the electoral Register, the removal of MP’s, the re drawing of constituency boundaries and the packing of the House of Lords with unelected Tory peers. Despite this, political corruption is an issue that reaches far beyond the Tory’s. The rise of far right parties such as UKIP, indicates that disillusionment with the ‘corrupt Westminster establishment’ is something the radical left needs to recognise as a problem, and offer an alternative to. It does not help then, that the moderate left tend to view corruption as superficial examples of rotten Tory’s misbehaving, while Leninists dismiss those concerned with political corruption as ignoring the real issues in society. The reality of the situation however, is that political corruption has for a long time been a fundamental means by which the political system has operated and social control has been secured. It is therefore important for the radical left to look outside of traditional party politics in our criticism of corruption, not only as a defensive measure against the far right, but for the a rebuilding of an Anti-Capitalist left.
The Anti-Corruption Left
In order to understand the lefts struggle against corruption and capitalism, we need to look prior to the late 1920s. Before then, the political system functioned according to complex systems of patronage and bribery. Aristocrats would constantly bribe the electorate with food and drink, or threaten them with eviction and boycott of trade, in order to install candidates who would work in their interests into the House of Commons. Violence carried out by hired mobs was routinely deployed by candidates against others. The Treasury was constantly plundered in order to fund the expenses of Cabinet Ministers. When reform minded candidates were elected they were often bought off with government positions. None of this was solved with the great reform act of 1832, the year that Britain supposedly became a modern democracy, after the middle class joined the aristocracy in the political elite. Bribery declined slightly after the 1880s with the implementation of the secret ballot and the inclusion of sections of the working class within the electorate, however corruption scandals and voter intimidation continued well into the 20th century. Overall, while other nations used spies and direct force to manage and quell dissent, the main form of social control in the UK was corruption. Bribes, Backhanders and threats, were the main elements that allowed the elite to control the classes beneath them.
It was for this reason that the radical left, which developed over the course of the century, bound up its critique of capitalism with its critique of corruption. This type of corruption was an example of economic power being converted into political power, and therefore needed to be challenged if the working class were ever going to control the means of production. This fact is overlooked by the liberal left which over emphasises the reformism of movements like the chartists, and by the Leninist left, which focuses solely on the need for revolutionary parties and candidates in order to achieve change. The truth is however, after the betrayal of the 1832 reform act, the anti-capitalist left formed a movement against an elite which held a fierce monopoly over land and capital. In its most radical incarnation it questioned the idea of hierarchy altogether, seeing this political system not just as an evil in itself, but as a means through which capitalism was defended and upheld. Although working class movements like the Chartists were partly reform based, the militant hostility directed by such groups at institutions like the House of Lords, was not just a moralistic criticism of the behaviour of its members, but a recognition that the House of Lords was a bastion of unjust authority, which operated according to thoroughly traditional corruption interactions. As such, the radical left fought for reforms in order to ensure its own independence, and work towards a revolutionary goal.
Blair and the New Corruption
Skip ahead to the 1997, when Tony Blair was elected, claiming that his government would be ‘whiter than white’. I have picked this example, as many people, despite the obvious reservations about the Iraq war, regard the Blair years as a progressive time period, when people were still reeling from the destruction caused by Thatcher, and wanted things to get better.
Upon coming to power, it almost immediately became clear that Labour had accepted one million pounds from the head of formula one, in exchange for exempting it from a ban on tobacco advertising. New Labour became almost synonymous with corruption scandals, the most significant being revelations in 2006 that they were offering financial backers peerage in the House of Lords, and the police investigation into the party in 2007 for accepting anonymous donations via third parties. By the end of Blair’s final term as Prime Minister, it was clear that Labour had embraced corruption just as much as the Tory’s. In retired life, the Blair family have established a cottage industry in property, shell companies and tax avoidance. This is not to make old labour sound infinitely better. After Labour settled in as a party of government following the Second World War, it often found itself at odds with its own voters. Similarly, Labour have not suddenly improved following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. However, the complete rejection of anti-corruption politics and the embracement of neoliberalism by Blair, facilitated the development of disillusionment.
Of course, the Blair years did see the rise of environmental and anti-globalist movements, outside of mainstream party politics. More recently however, disillusionment with unaccountable politicians has taken on a very different form indeed. It has taken the form of xenophobic populism, now a key strategy of both Labour and the Tory’s. The justification for the anti-immigrant bigotry emanating from our main political parties, has been the rise of UKIP. However, the whole reason for UKIP’s popularity is that they have seized Labours former role as ‘the voice of the working people’, not because they reflect a deep seated racism within the working class. The increasingly bad tempered and racist nature of the official Leave campaign, during the EU referendum debate, and the rise in racist hate crime that has occurred as a result, highlights the dangers of political apathy being channelled into the ‘Thatcherism on steroids’ ideology, espoused by UKIP.
Farage has shown signs that corruption, in its political and electoral forms, is going to be a major emphasis of UKIP’s campaigns in the future, even if he is no longer the leader. In 2015, UKIP accused the Tory’s of electoral fraud in order to beat them in South Thanet. Kent Police investigated and decided there was no case in the accusation, but now that the constituency is implicated in Tory electoral fraud, UKIP are unlikely to leave the issue alone. The Party have also previously accused Labour of engaging in postal vote fraud, even going as far to racialize the issue in the most horribly fascist way possible, by blaming immigrants for Labours electoral victories! As a result of this, just as the corrupt nature of parliament and the elite, has become UKIPs ground by linking these problems to immigrants, the left needs to prevent corruption from being an issue monopolised by racists as well. One obvious way of doing this would be to point out how ridiculously corrupt UKIP are, as illustrated by the election of disgraced ex tory MP Neil Hamilton, as a Welsh assembly member.
Is Social Democracy the Best we can Hope For?
Just as UKIP are a response to political corruption, so is Jeremy Corbyn. His promise of a ‘new kind of politics resonates with many people. Indeed, recent polling has shown Corbyn edging ahead of Cameron, in approval ratings. Although it is questionable whether we should be looking to politicians to do this, preventing the return of Blairism, and re occupying the anti-establishment terrain, currently occupied by UKIP’s racist populism, should be a crucial task for the left.
In my opinion, the lefts overall stance on corruption cannot focus solely on the liberal left’s moralistic notion of class conflict, nor can it focus on the Leninist idea that corruption is somehow ‘not a real issue’. Those in the former mentioned group, who warn of our ‘hard won democratic freedoms’ being taken away from us, are putting forward an inadequate analysis of British politics. The radical left has constantly grappled with the system of corruption and authoritarianism that characterises British politics, and which is currently being imposed by the Tory’s. As such, while it is of course true that they have wrestled important political concessions from the elite over the last two centuries, these were rarely if ever ends in themselves, and were perceived as the first step in wider social and economic change. In failing to recognise this fact, the liberal left does not do themselves or leftism any favours. Similarly, leftists cannot dismiss corruption as a superficial side effect of capitalism. It is important to recognise that historically, corruption has been a fundamental aspect the way British politics has developed, and as such so has opposition to it. Therefore, we must present a critique of corruption that acknowledges the issues importance, while at the same time proposing solutions that go beyond voting for the lesser of two evils.
Apathy and anger with the elite are fuelled by actual inequality and exclusion, just as misguided complaints about immigration are often based on real problems such as lack of decent and affordable housing. Reclaiming the politics of anti-corruption from the right is a possible and desirable, task of the British left. Showing that immoral bosses and politicians are the enemy of both British and migrant labourers is a decent starting point. However, from a Libertarian Socialist point of view, we need to open up a non-hierarchical space to the left of Corbyn and Sanders, which takes corruption and its effects seriously, and also points to alternatives.