As many Conservatives feared, the government’s fiasco over the Owen Paterson affair is giving traction to accusations of “Tory sleaze”. You can argue whether Mr Paterson’s conduct actually merits this description, but a fair appreciation of the facts matters little in this kind of rough and tumble – a rough and tumble that Conservatives are only too happy to indulge in when it is to their advantage. And in any case there have been other examples of dubious behaviour. The Conservative opinion poll lead is evaporating. This must give Labour some badly needed hope. But capitalising on this issue will be tricky.
Labour does come at this with some advantages. They are much less sleazy than the Conservatives, having been out of national power for eleven years. Their MPs tend not to have well-paid consultancies. The government won’t let them award peerages to donors, removing the temptation to do so, and so on. Better still, their leader, Sir Keir Starmer, looks the model of personal integrity, even if he is a bit pompous with it. But for all that, Labour has been slow to see much poll benefit. The Conservative poll share is falling, but Labour’s does not seem to be rising, or not by much. The most conspicuous beneficiary in the most recent poll are the Greens. The Greens have very little prospect under the current electoral system, so in any general election their vote will get squeezed away. A lot of that squeeze is likely to go back to the Conservatives, such is the fear so many people have of voting Labour.
What is the problem? The party’s reputation can be tainted by two lines of attack. The first is that they will be no better in if they win power – “they’re all the same” – capitalising on the public’s general cynicism over politicians. Labour’s record when it was last in power wasn’t particularly clean by British standards. They needed big money donors, some of whom ended up with peerages, or, apparently, other favours; many of their MPs indulged in dubious expense claims. Former leader Tony Blair seemed a bit too relaxed about such things – though his successor Gordon Brown had a stronger reputation. The other line of attack is that the party is being taken over by the far left; their politicians are not beholden to big money, but they might have a tendency to think that the ends justify the means, and play fast and loose with the rules in other ways. And, of course, hard left parties are open to other lines of attack that might drive under decided voters away.
Labour has another problem. They are not articulating clear policies that would make British politics cleaner, beyond vague promises of tightening up the existing regime. They have suggested that MPs should not be allowed to take on paid consultancies. But they won’t suggest that second jobs will not be allowed – as at least one of their number is an emergency doctor, and they like to make the claims to sainthood that such a role allows – and doubtless there are other examples of “real world” jobs that enhance an MP’s job. Besides, all this is just tweaking at the edges, and would hardly make it harder for powerful business interests to get undue influence.
What is needed is something much more eye-catching. An obvious policy is the abolition of the House of Lords, perhaps with its replacement by an elected second chamber. The Lords are already over-large and over-used for patronage; the government is in the process of making things much worse by creating even more peers, of which large party donors will undoubtedly feature heavily; that could give the idea public traction. A second idea is to reform the electoral system for the House of Commons. Nothing is more annoying than Conservative claims that it is up to constituents to judge the behaviour of their MPs, when most voters quite rationally think that party label is more important – and most MPs hold safe seats anyway. Behaviour has to be pretty extreme for an MP to lose his seat, and usually the opposition has to be pretty canny too. Actually electoral reform would not necessarily deliver a better system; proportional systems can produce their own safe seats (though not the Single Transferable Vote, which requires multiple-member constituencies). But it’s a real change that would make established politicians uncomfortable – and it can prove a focus for a public wish to make a real change to politics. The is exactly what happened in New Zealand in 1993.
But Labour has a credibility problem when proposing such policies, which go to the root of why people distrust it. When the party has had the opportunity, they have done little to progress either Lords reform or electoral reform. The New Labour government from 1997 to 2010 made some important reforms to both, but none that changed the system radically, to tackle patronage appointments or safe seats, for example. When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 to 2015 proposed much more significant reforms (in some cases not far from Labour’s 2010 manifesto), Labour undermined them because they did not want the governing parties (and especially the Lib Dems) to get any of the kudos; party advantage came first. Besides, the Leninists on the party’s left probably quite like the opportunities conferred by the current system to create an elective dictatorship. Big constitutional changes are tricky to push through, so the public would be right to question Labour’s determination to make changes when things got a bit rough.
What would give Labour a much better chance of showing that it really wants to change things is to form a cross-party alliance. This would need to include the Liberal Democrats, who have their own credibility issues after the coalition, but who are locally strong in places, and the Greens, who have the momentum. Bringing Scottish and Welsh nationalists into the picture would add even more credibility, but would be much harder. This would have the added benefit of making things easier after the election if neither the Conservatives nor Labour won a majority – which looks more probable than Labour winning a majority on its own.
Alas Sir Keir shows no sign at all that he has either the courage or the imagination to take such a path. The result of that is that the business of British politics will carry on much as normal for many years to come.