Conservative party conference. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Angela Eagle: The Tories have broken their promises on political reform

David Cameron has reinforced the political power of a few big money donors and well established vested interests, argues the shadow leader of the Commons.  Now that his grassroots have taken flight he is even more reliant on the privileged few he uses his power to support.

At their coming conference the Tories apparently plan to announce that their membership has risen. The problem is that it hasn’t. Since David Cameron was elected it is estimated a staggering 118,600 members have fled the Party, a number equivalent to the population of Tunbridge Wells.

Today I’ve written to Grant Shapps to urge him to come clean on Tory membership. Instead of falsely inflating the numbers by adding in ‘friends’ and ‘supporters’ as it is reported he will do, he should own up and reveal the true scale of Dave Cameron's lost army of Conservative members.

This latest attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes says it all about the Tories and their broken promises on political reform. They have failed to reform their own party, failed to reform our politics, and are now fiddling the figures to cover it up.

Before the election David Cameron promised he was going to “fix” our broken politics. He opined about the problem of a few donors buying influence. He said he was going to shine the “light of transparency on lobbying in our country”.

But the second he stepped over the threshold of Number Ten, he reverted to Tory type and started doing the complete opposite.

Latest figures show that hedge funds have given the Tories a staggering £45.7 million. Hedge funds have been given a tax cut worth £145 million. This year alone £5 million has been donated to the Tories by people who had private dinners with the PM and senior ministers. And the Lobbying Act was just a Trojan horse for an attack on charities and campaigners while lobbying was made less transparent, not more.

On every test he set himself, David Cameron has failed. He hasn’t built a better politics, he’s done all he can to reinforce the political power of a few big money donors and well established vested interests.  Now that his grassroots have taken flight he is even more reliant on the privileged few he uses his power to support.

In Labour, we don’t just talk about political reform, we have put our money where our mouth is. We’ve implemented a root and branch reform of our membership structure to ensure that we reach out to millions of working people around the UK. We have written our policy programme with the input of hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve travelled the country talking to people who don’t vote about why, and we have come up with a comprehensive programme of political reform that we will implement in government. This includes reform of our legislative system and giving the public a say at PMQs, a universal register of all professional lobbyists backed by a code of conduct and sanctions, and a comprehensive devolution of power from Whitehall to local communities.

During my People’s Politics Inquiry I met Karina, a young mum who has never voted. She told me that politics turns her off because all she sees is a Government that helps their mates at the top. She’s not the only one who feels like that. Voter turnout has been in decline for decades, and active involvement in politics is in decline too.

If the Tories want to rebuild trust in politics they must start by being open about the state of their membership. But, much more importantly, they need to stop talking about political reform and start acting.

The choice between Labour and the Tories is clear. A hollowing-out Tory Party who want to keep political power in the hands of a few. Or a vibrant Labour movement, who want to put power back in the hands of the country.

Getty
Show Hide image

By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman