Why do we let our leaders get away with their decisions for three decades?

Waiting 30 years to release information means that it is too late to hold people to account.

I don't often agree with Paul Dacre, but he's always been right about wanting to halve the 30-year rule. How is it that we should let our leaders get clean away with the consequences of their decisions for three decades?

Today, for example, we have learned that Margaret Thatcher kitted out Number 10 on expenses (but paid for an ironing board), Geoffrey Howe wanted to abandon Liverpool to decline and the secret service pressed the BBC to censor Panorama.

Why should we have waited until now to discover all this, now that those responsible are too old to answer for their actions -- too frail in the case of Howe and Thatcher -- and safely out of power? After all, we've paid for it. We voted for it -- or at least we thought we did. So why shouldn't we know about it? People in their 60s and 70s have the right to know what the governments they supported did with their votes, without having to go to the grave wondering. But of course, this situation suits those in power very nicely indeed.

There is understandably little pressure from within government to open up the freedom of information to extend to anything beyond what local councils spend on school dinners. While bean-counters' decisions can be torn to shreds on the one hand, the big decisions remain safely locked away for 30 years, until it's all been forgotten and history has already been written. Which politician is going to vote for more transparency, more openness, more scrutiny on them during their own lifetimes?

Perhaps, in 2030 or thereabouts, we'll discover the discussions the New Labour cabinet had about the Freedom of Information Act. Maybe we'll all have a jolly old laugh about how it was decided that there was no way of opening up central government's decision making, and how the rights of the voting public were so haughtily dismissed as usual.

The thing is, I'll be 52 by the time I find out what the first government I voted for (in 1997) really got up to behind closed doors. Tony Blair will be 74, if he's still with us (and I hope he is), and even older by the time the really contentious stuff about the Iraq War comes out. It will be too late to hold these people to account for the decisions they made and the things they did.

In the meantime, they have been able to tell their side of the story. They've been able to write history from their point of view, omitting the unpleasant details that might come out and surprise us; they've been able to make money out of presenting their version of events as what really happened. And we can't do anything about it.

The dusty old faces recite the same tired arguments at times like this. Government needs to be secret, in order to preserve the decision-making process. Ministers must know that everything's locked away until they're about to die, in order to sleep soundly in their beds for the intervening time.

And I'm not saying we should broadcast cabinet meetings live -- just that there isn't so long to wait until we find out what really happened. It would serve our democracy better, and let our leaders know that they won't be able to escape scrutiny for the decisions they made and the things they really said. But then, which prime minister would open him or herself up to that? We may have to wait more than 30 years for a change to come.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.