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Can democracy defeat political apathy?

Written by Robert Barrington on Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Why did the Jeremy Paxman and Russell Brand Newsnight interview go viral last week? Brand clearly struck a chord regarding the public mistrust and apathy about politics. But can Parliament turn this around, starting by demonstrating they are representing public – rather than personal – interests?


Why did the Jeremy Paxman and Russell Brand Newsnight interview go viral last week? Whichever side you take it is unarguable that Brand struck a chord regarding the public mistrust of Parliament and apathy about politics in general. Can the UK’s political class turn this around? I think and hope so. The starting point must be to demonstrate they are representing public – rather than personal – interests. A recent opinion poll by TI suggested 90 per cent believe that the UK Government is run by a few big entities acting in their own interest.

When the government published its shockingly poor Transparency of Lobbying Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill in the summer, it was an unwelcome surprise to discover how badly the government had misread the mood of the country. And one of the other surprising things about it was the timing.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) had just announced a consultation on precisely the same subject. It was unclear whether the government was being inept was trying to pre-empt what might turn out to be a politically difficult report from the CSPL, or was feeling irresistible pressure to introduce a Bill.

A few months later, the Bill is in trouble, and the CSPL has now published its report ‘Strengthening Transparency Around Lobbying’. This makes it even clearer that the government should simply scrap its misconceived Lobbying Bill and start again.

Here are four key themes in the CSPL report all of which are sensible and supported by Transparency International:

1. Transparency is good but not enough. Transparency helps us to see when corruption is at work in our democracy, and hopefully acts as a deterrent. But other measures are required to tackle corruption itself.

2. Regulating lobbying is good but not enough. Unless other key areas such as the Revolving Door are also better regulated, corrupt behaviour will simply be displaced and not eradicated.

3. Good lobbying regulation needs to cover all forms of lobbying. This means both the supply (those doing the lobbying) and demand (those being lobbied) side of lobbying need to be regulated and made transparent.

4. Good regulation is no substitute for personal and institutional ethics. MPs and Peers have let down themselves, and our democracy, time and time again through personal greed and poor ethical judgement. Parliament needs a new culture, back up by training. For example, the CSPL rightly recognises that the embarrassing indulgences of some parliamentarians in receiving gifts and hospitality need to be brought under control.

One further key area, which the CSPL has previously addressed, is the need for a cap on donations to political parties. The current system remains the source of too many scandals.

While these are slightly obscure issues to the ten million people who watched Paxman and Brand cross swords about why it’s not worth voting, they lie at the heart of a culture of mistrust and apathy that undermines the UK’s parliamentary democracy. That we have the right to vote and free and fair elections is a privilege shared by too few countries in the world. Voters and Parliamentarians in the UK both need to remember this.

Some, I hope many, and perhaps most, MPs and Peers act with great personal integrity and in the public interest. But collectively they need to do more and to do better. This may mean imposing proper sanctions against colleagues who have failed to behave with such integrity. It may mean a host of measures to improve ethical conduct. It certainly means scrapping the Lobbying Bill and introducing new legislation, based on the CSPL’s report, that is fit for purpose.

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Read 14782 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 11:47
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Robert Barrington

Robert is TI-UK's Executive Director. You can view his full bio here, and tweet him @TIukED.

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