This article was first published on Progress Online, 17 January 2013.
Politics can be an extremely insular pursuit, a profound irony in that it is very much about the people. Those of us for whom Labour politics is a defining part of our lives quite reasonably spend endless hours thinking of how we can help the triumph of Labour values over those of our Conservative opponents; sadly, many of us also spend our time thinking about how we can triumph over members of our own party in internecine disputes. These conflicts take on an outsized importance to us, and we lose track of how little either resonate with the public at large. In spite of some progress toward transparency, much of politics remains removed from the people it purports to represent. Labour should commit to shedding more light on politics in general and our own party in particular.
The last few years have not been without progress in bringing transparency to governing. The House of Commons, in particular, has made strides, galvanized by the expenses scandal. Published expenses, the register of interests, and declarations of hospitality received are all steps in the right direction.
There could be greater transparency on how and why Lords are appointed; a voter could be forgiven for thinking that we’re still in the unfortunate days of cash-for-honours, if only because, with a few high-profile exceptions, there is still very little clarity on the reasons behind most elevations to the Lords. With Lords reform appearing to have gone down with the Nick Clegg ship, at least for the time being, Labour can and must step into the breach, both calling for and setting an example of increased transparency in Lords appointments. Labour can lead by example by publishing its own procedures for selecting Labour Lords and introducing a democratic, transparent process in choosing the finalists.
We are also in particular need of clarity and transparency regarding the people who attempt to influence our government. Labour must revitalise the issue of a statutory register of lobbyists and their official activities; a potential model is that of the United States, where the Lobbing and Disclosure Act of 1995 and Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 require that professional lobbyists report their activities quarterly and any financial donations to political entities twice-yearly. Anyone who spends less than 20 per cent of their time lobbying is exempt from these requirements, easing the burden on grassroots advocates or citizens who simply wish to educate their representatives on an important issue. While the model is not perfect, it has gone a long way toward cleaning up a system that had been opaque, chaotic, and occasionally outright anti-democratic, and we would do well to take a few key lessons from it.
It is not just in matters of government where Labour must take the lead, however. Our own party is still due for a bracing dose of sunlight. Ed Miliband is off to a good start on this with the publication of his meetings and dinners with donors who have given more than £7,500 and with trade union general secretaries; with a stroke, the publication of this list made the leadership of the Labour party significantly more transparent than its Conservative counterpart (David Cameron draws the line at donors who give more than £50,000).
There could also be greater transparency regarding many of Labour’s internal procedures. A standardised process for the selection of candidates for mayorships, parliament, and other offices must be made public, and critically, the Labour party can and must be willing to field and answer questions about it – simply putting some text on a web page and referring inquiries back to it (as has, sadly, been common practice in the past) is not sufficient. Further, in an echo of the need to register the activities of lobbyists, Labour must be clearer and more open about who contributes to and influences its policy platform.
It is not clear whether the murkier aspects of Labour’s operations are the result of an articulated policy, or, as seems more likely, are cultural holdovers from a more centralized era of the party. In either case, the effect is the same – in party politics and in governing, Labour is still effectively telling the public ‘we do not trust you with information about how we decide on candidates, staffing, and policy, or who we talk to in order to make decisions’. Then, in the next breath, we ask that same public to trust us with their vote, and express surprise when they seem reluctant to give it. It is time Labour held itself to a higher standard of openness and public trust, in the process gaining credibility we currently lack in making the same demands of media, banks, and government.
Prem Goyal is vice chair of Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency Labour party