Stairway to Westminster

Congratulations to Andrew Brown for asking the question of the week, "Why are we [bloggers] all so nasty?" before adding, "People are such arseholes online because they write as they expect journalists to do."

Huh?

Thankfully Andrew goes on to explain what he means:

I think that the real explanation for online manners is even less flattering than the idea that we all have inside us a little Jeremy Clarkson, at least for people in my trade: people online are such arseholes because they write as they expect journalists to do. Almost all the really popular forms of modern journalism consist of licensed scorn, or invective that no one sober would dare to use face to face with its target. This has been true for a long time – in British journalism, Bernard Levin first made his name by insulting people in the Sixties, then there came Bron Waugh and Private Eye, and after them, Julie Burchill and her endless successors. In every case, the secret of success was to push at the boundaries and to be more offensive than anyone would have thought possible in print before they did it.

Christ on a bike, is there anything that bloggers do that journalists won’t try to take the credit for!

Hell no, us ordinary plebs would never have dreamt of insulting public figures and pouring scorn on politicians until Levin and Waugh started up and made us all realise that we didn’t have to be a bunch of servile, forelock-tugging, ever-so-‘umble Uriah Heeps to get along in life.

Which came first, the opinion or the newspaper columnist? As chicken and egg questions go its hardly a toughy is it?

Anyway, speaking of opinions, have a look at this and have a guess what my opinion of it might be?

Many blame Tony Blair’s bedazzlement with business, money and the glint of markets. Unfair, I suspect. Put this into the context of the many countries mired by this same conundrum: how do you pay for democracy when voters despise politics and won’t join parties? To equate dubious party fundraising with "corruption" misleads the public into thinking this is about personal gain. But when a pair of undeclared cowboy boots can make the front page as an outrageous bribe, British politics is pretty clean. As for party donations for peerages, there is probably no prime minister or opposition leader who has not done it. That cuts no ice with police enforcing the 1925 Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act – but it hardly makes Blair exceptionally venal.

Yes, as you might guess that’s La Toynbee firmly back in full village idiot mode, typing fingers in fifth gear, brain stuck firmly in reverse as usual. "To equate dubious party fundraising with "corruption" misleads the public into thinking this is about personal gain", says Polly, oblivious to the fact that some of us unwashed, pyjama-clad blogging plebs possess more that a couple of braincells (minimum requirement for a Guardian columnist) to rub to together. No you’re right, Polly, it isn’t necessarily about about personal gain, although I dare say Prescott was chuffed to bits with his Roy Rogers ensemble, but nor is it, as you seem to think, "an accidental by-product of Blair’s great constitutional negligence", either.

No, personal gain, even where it does rear its tawdry little head, is far from being the raison d’etre for political corruption, at least not so far as British politicians go. Thanks to the peculiarities of our unwritten constitution and the very limited sense in which there is separation in powers between the executive and the legislature, its actually pretty difficult for a serving politician to get their nose too deeply in the big-business trough while in office – that usually comes afterwards, when they’ve retired to spend a bit more time with their personal pension fund and the non-executive directorships start flowing.

If not about the money – form the politician’s point of view – then what? The answer is stupidly obvious, which I guess is why Polly misses it completely.

Power and influence. That’s the name of game. Power and influence. Always has been and most probably always will be.

The allegation that Labour traded loans for peerages has, inevitably, spawned comparison with David Lloyd George’s sale of honours in the 1920’s, with Lord Levy cast in the role of (Arthur) Maundy Gregory, Lloyd George’s ‘fixer’, who currently stands as the only man, to date, ever convicted for selling honours under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. What’s all too easily forgotten in this is the reason why Lloyd George took to corruptly selling honours, which was not to line his own pockets but to fund his political office. The schism in the Liberal Party at the end of World War I, which saw Lloyd George enter the election as leader of a ‘National Liberal’ coalition in which the Conservatives held more than two-thirds of its seats, left Lloyd George cut adrift from Asquith’s independent Liberals, who stood against the coalition, and more importantly put him out in the cold as far as access to Liberal Party funds were concerned; these being controlled entirely by Asquith and his allies.

Yes, Lloyd George sold honours, including peerages – hereditary peerages, by the way, as life peerages did not come into existence until the passing of the Life Peerages Act in 1958, and yes he did so for ‘personal gain’ but the gain in this case was not that required to boost his pension fund or buy a nice little retirement villa in the Tuscan hills, but to fund his political ambitions, not that this was to help him in the long run. Having tried to set himself up to go it alone, Lloyd George’s coalition fell apart when, at a meeting on 12 October 1992, Conservative members of the coalition voted to break from the coalition and fight the next general election (due in 1923) on their own – contrary to popular myth, this is apparent not the origin of the Tory 1992 committee. By the time of 1923 election, Lloyd George had brokered a rapprochement with Asquith and rejoined a united Liberal Party, under Asquith’s leadership. This election resulted in a hung parliament and the first ever Labour government under James Ramsay-McDonald, albeit a minority one which lasted only 10 months.

The general election that followed in 1924, which the Tories won with a massive 209 majority, was a disaster for the Liberals, who saw their representation in parliament collapse to a mere 40 MPs. This election was also notable for the alleged influence on its outcome of the Zinoviev Letter, which is widely thought to have scuppered Labour’s electoral chances by identifying an Anglo-Soviet trade agreement, which was being negotiated by the Labour government – and opposed by the Tories – as an opportunity for increase Soviet propaganda activity within the British Labour movement. To come full circle, Lloyd George’s fixer, Maundy Gregory, by then working for the British Secret Intelligence Service (later renamed MI6), was directly involved in ‘leaking’ the Zinoviev letter to the press, resulting in its publication four days before polling day – and, in 1999, an official inquiry concluded that the letter had probably been concocted by the SIS operatives based in Riga to help the Tories win the 1924 election – and we think politics is a dirty game these days.

Lloyd George’s situation may have differed marked from that of Blair/Lord Levy but if it is shown that honours, including peerages, have been offered as an inducement to secure donations to the party’s election fund then it will have been for marked the same reason that Lloyd George sold off honours over 80 years ago.

If the truth be told, any detailed comparison between lists of significant party donors, for any of the three main parties, stretching right back to, at least, the inception of life peerages in 1958, and lists of honours granted by the Prime Minister of the day, will inevitably look more than a bit fishy – one might reasonable say that honours follow donations (or loans) much as night follows day. To think that the possibility that honours may have been ‘sold’ or used as an inducement to secure funding for any political party is the sole problem here is to take an extremely naive view of this issue. The real problem here is not that the honours system may have been abused or, indeed, that it may be open to abuse but that the whole system is a feudal relic and part of one of last major bastions of political patronage within the British constitution, the royal prerogative.

Bob Piper recently provided a perfect summary of the real issue that underpins the so-called ‘loans for peerages scandal’:

It is Her Majesty’s Government, the Monarch can declare war, legislation requires the Royal Assent, the Monarch appoints the Peers, the Archbishops and the Bishops, and all the CBE’s MBE’s and OBE’s are doled out by the Queen as if she had sat in her bedroom into the early hours pouring over lists of the worthy to decide who gets what gong.

But in reality, this power lies with the Prime Minister… and it is this power of patronage that needs to be brought to an end if we are to call ourselves a democracy. The monarchical powers are passed down by the monarch, not to the people, through the House of Commons, but to the Prime Minister, who exercises that power with all the grandeur and ruthlessness of a feudal King. The Prime Minister selects the Cabinet, those who would be King, and decides who gets what job. That gives the King the power over his Barons. The Prime Minister selects all of the other underlings of Government, all of the PPS’s the Junior Ministers, the Whips and who sits on which important Select Committees. Added to this power, the Prime Minister can also decide who is next in line, who is waiting at the foot of the greasy pole, if one of the underlings doesn’t behave themselves. In this way the Prime Minister controls the Government, and can therefore usually command the controlling Party… and in this way, controls the House of Commons. The power of patronage over the Lords just seals the whole thing up in one neat package. So the next time you hear Ruth Kelly or David Miliband talking about empowering people you will know they are saying you may be able to have power over the person that decides how often your dustbin is emptied… whilst the country is still run along feudal lines.

That pretty much sums it up in a nutshell – to be elected to the office of Prime Minister is to acquire a power of patronage that remains largely unchanged since medieval times, and in that respect Blair, and his predecessors, are as much feudal princelings as any medieval scion of the royal blood – in fact more so, as the constitutional position of the present Monarch is such that it would be almost unthinkable for the present Queen to exercise her prerogative in a manner which overruled the edicts of her Prime Minister.

It it not just those who use and abuse the honours system that are (allegedly) corrupt, but the very system itself.

As to how corrupt this system is, consider these comments made by Tony Blair to John Sopel on yesterday’s ‘The Politics Show’ on BBC 1:

There is one thing I would say to you however, because it’s important people understand that nobody in the Labour Party to my knowledge, has sold on us or sold peerages. And the fact that it’s sometimes excluded from the public’s mind in relation to this debate, is that there are places in the House of Lords that are reserved for party nominees, for their party supporters. Right. These are not honours, they’re working peerages, reserved for Party supporters, Conservative supporters, Labour supporters, Liberal Democrat supporters. In my view, it is absurd to say, that if someone supports a political party financially – helps it pay its bills, run its election campaign, that they should be debarred from being party supporters for those places reserved specifically for party supporters.

I notice that Iain Dale has responded somewhat querulously to the suggestion that there are ‘reserved’ places in the House of Lords for party nominees:

Perhaps someone could enlighten me as to which part of our constitution reserves places in the House of Lords for Party nominees. He really does make it up as he goes along, doesn’t he?

Well, to answer Iain’s question a little more directly than some of those who’ve commented on this article over at his blog, the answer to his question is that there is, as I understand it, an agreement in place between the three main parties as to the precise number of working peers each may nominate as and when the opportunity presents itself and within Britain’s unwritten constitution such an agreement, which is no more than a convention, becomes part of the constitution itself. In reality, the nomination of individuals to the House
 of Lords rests exclusively in the purview of the Prime Minister; Blair is under no constitutional obligation to accept nominations from opposition parties and does so as both a matter of courtesy and, no doubt, also to avoid making it quite obvious as to how corrupt and undemocratic the whole business of elevating people to peerage really is.

One might well ask quite how it is that a constitution ‘rule’ may be constructed in such a flimsy manner but, in reality, such things are by no means unusual – the Salisbury convention, which Blair and others in government took to citing so vociferously over the last year on every occasion that their legislation hit choppy waters in the House of Lords, rest on nothing more substantial than a single statement in Lord Salisbury’s response, as Conservative leader in the House of Lords, to the King’s Speech in 1945…

…it would be constitutionally wrong when the country has expressed its view, for this House to oppose proposals which have been definitely put before the electorate.

That, believe it or not, is the Salisbury convention in its entirety.

As stated, the real game here is one of power and influence – let’s not forget that there’s rather more to a peerage than simply a spiffy feudal title and an expensive set of archaic robes. A peerage currently affords the recipient a seat in the British legislature for life and an entree into the Westminster corridors of power – little wonder then that it’s expected that one of major obstacles to further reform of the House of Lords is likely to come from amongst the 140+ Labour Peers created by Tony Blair since 1997.

*Its worth noting that Blair has created substantially more life peers since 1997 than any previous Prime Minister since the introduction of life peerages in 1958 – over 350, in fact. This is over 100 more in total than the number of life peers created by all previous Labour governments since 1958 and slightly more than were created by the Conservatives from Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in 1979 to the end of the Major years in 1997.

It may well be true that Blair is no more ‘venal’ than some of his predecessors as Prime Minister, but suspicions that both Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers have been doling out gongs to major donors for years offer no excuse at all for the fundamentally undemocratic and feudal nature of the system as a whole.

Moreover, as a Labour Party member I take particular issue with Blair’s comment that:

…it is absurd to say, that if someone supports a political party financially – helps it pay its bills, run its election campaign, that they should be debarred from being party supporters for those places reserved specifically for party supporters.

Well Tony, that all depends on how, exactly, you define a party supporter. Is a party supporter someone who’s been a member of the party for some years, certainly before they started making six figure plus donations in party coffers. Do they attend branch meetings or CLP meetings. Do they campaign actively for the party at election time, join other party members in canvassing on the doorstep or put a bit of time into the constituency office helping out with the literature. Once they’re in the House of Lord can they be relied on to turn up, especially when there are important debates to be held and votes to be won. Can they be relied on, within reason, to vote with the whip (although I’ll happily give a bit of latitude on that on a number of recent pieces of legislation) and remain party supporters in the long-term – after Blair’s departure would do for starters, although I think most party members would be looking for something a little more long term in the way of commitment…

…or are the only in it for the influence that their fiscal generosity has bought them and does their support for the party then expire if and when we no longer hold the reigns of power.

That is, and should be, a pretty major question for party members like myself – just how many of Blair’s recently ennobled millionaires will be sticking around if and when the political fortunes of the party change and we’re no longer the party of government? What guarantees can Blair offer us, as party members, that some of his so-called party supporters won’t be crossing the floor and investing their money, and their votes, in Dave the Chameleon at the first sign that he might end up with the keys to number 10? None at all, I’d suspect.

There is a simple way to put this to a little bit of a test. As people will no doubt recall, the full list of high value ‘lenders’ who helped to fund the last general election campaign was/is:

Rod Aldridge – £1m. Executive chairman of IT support firm Capita.

Richard Caring – £2m. Fashion magnate and owner of the Ivy restaurant, who is said to be worth £300m.

Gordon Crawford – £500,000. Chairman of London Bridge Software.  

Professor Sir Christopher Evans – £1m. Founder and chairman of Merlin Biosciences, which invests in companies working in biosciences.

Sir David Garrard – £2.3m. Property developer and co-owner with Andrew Rosenfeld of property group Minerva prior to floatation. He is also a supporter of a city academy.

Nigel Morris – £1m. Co-founded Capital One Financial Services and a governor of the London Business School.

Sir Gulam Noon – £250,000. Curry tycoon who helped make chicken tikka masala the UK’s favourite dish.

Dr Chai Patel – £1.5m. The head of the Priory rehabilitation clinics.

Andrew Rosenfeld – £1m. A co-owner with Sir David Garrard of property group Minerva prior to floatation.

Lord David Sainsbury – £2m. Government science minister and member of the Sainsbury supermarket dynasty.

Barry Townsley – £1m. Stockbroker and chairman of financial services company Downay Day Townsley.

Derek Tullett – £400,000. Stockbroker and philanthropist.

Of this list we can, of course, disregard Lord David Sainsbury who not only already has his peerage but has also been Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Trade and Industry since 1998 and must, therefore, be a fully paid-up member of the party one must assume.

As for the rest of the list, which includes the four lenders whose nominations for a peerage were blocked by the Lords appointment commission – Dr Chai Patel, Sir Gulam Noon, Sir David Garrard and Barry Townsley – the question that I think needs to be asked is precisely how many of these lenders are actually party members?

Knowing full well that this post will be seen by other Labour bloggers through Bloggers4Labour, I do wonder if any of our other Labour bloggers might be in a position to help answer this question by using the comments to indicate whether any of the above are members of their local branch or CLP and, better still, whether any of them actually take and active part in any routine party activities, whether that’s by attending meetings, canvassing or anything else that grassroots party members generally get involved with?

As far as I’m concerned, if we are to accept Blair’s assertion that any of these ‘lenders’ are genuine party supporters and not just a bunch of millionaire pigopolists whose support for the party extends only so far as the reach of their cheque book then I think we ought to know just what kind of track record they have to bring to the table.

Of course, ‘loans for peerages’ is not the only game in town and perhaps the major short-term beneficiary of Lord Levy getting his collar felt by Yates of the Yard was John Prescott, was not only safely ensconced far away from all the action, attending the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, but also found both his personal life and his dealings with Phil Anschutz shunted unceremoniously off the front pages as the press scented the opportunity to hunt altogether bigger game.

Prescott’s respite, however, looks to be pretty short-lived – not only did the Mail on Sunday include the touching tale of a burgeoning friendship between one of Prescott’s security officers and a cat called ‘My Boy’ – who, quite by chance, happens to be owned by the same MP named by Guido as Prezza’s long-term extra-marital squeeze – but if Guido’s inside information is to be trusted in such matters, it now appears that a Windsor-based Tory businessman has filed a formal complaint with Yates of the Yard in regards to his recent dalliance with with a Colorado billionaire, citing the Prevention of Corruption Acts of 1889-1916.

Quite how far this complaint might have legs is open to question, not least as s2 of the 1916 act appears to shift the burden of proof onto Prescott is it can be shown that he has received a gift or consideration from someone actively seeking a contract with the government, such that it presumes such a gift to have been received corruptly unless proven otherwise – all of which might run onto the rocks when it butts up against provisions for the presumption of innocence in article 5 of the Human Rights Act….

…although if Prescott is on a hook here and is forced to wriggle off it using the Human Right Acts this could have the rather interesting side effect of driving a legal coach and horses through the provisions on the burden of proof for the defence of consent in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which is constructed on much the same basis, which makes for an altogether more interesting dilemma for the government.

The fact remains, looked at objectively, trading peerages for loans (allegedly) is penny-ante stuff; the kind of money alleged to changing hands on such deals may look impressive to Joe Public but is actually fairly insignificant when compared to the wads of cash riding on decisions such as whether Phil Anschutz and his business partner, Sol Kerzner, get the casino licence they’re after – if statements put out Anschutz’s company, AEG, are to be believed then a minimum of £250m of investment in the Dome site is riding on their getting a casino licence, which makes Sir Gulam Noon’s £250K look a lot like small change.

And therein lies one of the great truisms of political double-deailing – if and a politician gets caught with his (or her) hand in the cookie jar, its invariably an act of petty corruption that catches them out. Rarely, if ever, does a politician get caught out on one of the truly big deals, the kind in which the rewards are measured in much less tangible terms and in which the real currency is not money but power.

Let me ask you this – does anyone seriously believe that the going rate for the one super casino licence currently on offer amounts to nothing more than a day of the ranch, a chat about William Wilberforce and a cowboy outfit? Of course not – if there is anything dodgy in the government’s dealings with Phil Anschutz then whatever it is, it going to be operating at a much bigger scale than a few perks for the Deputy Prime Minister.

Greg Palast’s coverage of what was, at the time, called the ‘Lobbygate’ scandal in his 2003 book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, offers up a number of tantalising clues as to what we should really be looking for for in and around the government’s dealings with Phil Anschutz in order to understand the true nature of the high stakes game that’s being played out right before our eyes.

If you’re entirely unfamiliar with this story – which was very quickly written off by the press as nothing more than a couple of egotistical lobbyists overstating their own importance – then you can get a flavour of what Palast was investigating at the time from this article, which first appeared in the Observer in 1998 – and for those Labour members looking in via B4L, some of you might be very interested to note that a lobbying firm set up by an, of late, rather vociferous apostate Blairite makes a quite interesting appearance in Palast’s article.

In his book, Palast expands considerably on the article which appears on his website, in addition to which the time-span between the article’s publication and that of the book enabled him to carry events forward and consider the denouement of some of the stories first featured in 1998.

For example, in his 1998 article, Palast refers to the government’s energy review, Powergen’s proposed bid for East Midlands Electricity and a statement by the then Trade and Industry Secretary, Margaret Beckett, denying that the close proximity of the two announcements (the energy review and Powergen’s bid) indicated in any way that the two were somehow related.

Picking up the story in his book, Palast goes on to note that Beckett was implacably opposed to relaxing competition regulations imposed by the Tories at the time that they privatised the electricity industry, which served to preclude the three generating companies created by privatisation, Powergen, National Power (NPower) and Nuclear Electric, from buying up regional distribution companies, which was rather a problem as the final decision on whether the takeover could go ahead rested with Beckett as the relevant Minister of State.

What happened next, if Palast is correct, should shatter any illusions one might have about electing UK governments on the premise that they’ll go on to serve the public interest.

With US, and particularly Texas-based, electricity companies queueing up for the chance to carve themselves out a sizable piece of the UK energy market – lurking behind Powergen, at the time they were making their play for East Midlands Electricity, were Houston-based Reliant Energy – Palast alleges that Beckett was effectively taken out of the loop and sidelined on key decisions relating to the sale of UK energy companies.

Beckett, so Palast claims, had rapidly acquired the nickname ‘Minister No’, on taking over at the DTI, in the one circle that really mattered at the time when it cames to the government’s energy review and the future of UK energy policy, the circle of US-based corporate funders surrounding Bill Clinton.

Back in 1997/98 Slick Willy and the Texas Good Ol’ Boys from US Big Energy had a bit of shopping list when it came to the UK energy review, one that included the Chancellor not screwing down on the energy companies with a big windfall tax and the DTI not getting in the way of of several US merger targets and letting a couple of Bill’s special friends, Enron and Entergy, get on with the business of building gas-fired power stations in the UK. Beckett, however, presented them with a problem, as the final decision on several items on Bill’s list, including the Powergen takeover of East Midlands Electricity and Enron gas-fired power stations – not only was she opposed to both these projects (and several others) but, inconveniently, the quasi-judicial powers conferred on her as the Minister of State at the DTI meant that she had the last and final word on these deals.

But not to worry too much, because Bill had a friend called Tony who could make everything right and solve his little problem.

And so it was, so Palast claims, that with the US energy vultures circling over the UK market,  the UK goverment rolled over, waved its legs in air and waited for the energy speculators, including the now infamous Enron, to come a tickling and all, pretty much, as a favour to Tony’s new best friend, Bill; and less than 15 months after taking up office at the DTI (27 July 1998, to be precise), Margaret Beckett got a change of scenary – all the way to the parliamentary backwater of Leader of the House – so that a new minister could be put in place, one who genuine understood the importance of keeping on Bill’s good side…
…Peter Mandelson.

*Powergen got approval for its takeover of East Midlands Electricity on 22 September 1998 and shortly afterwards handed Enron a waiver allowing them to get to work on building gas-fired power stations before ditch the moratorium on development, that had held up Enron’s plans, altogether shortly afterwards.

Can this really be true?

Could it really have been the case that mere months after taking office and promising to be ‘whiter than white’ and ‘purer that pure’, US corporate interest in the wholesale takeover of Britain’s electricity industry plus the hard word from Slick Willie effectively determined not only UK energy policy but the outcome of a cabinet reshuffle?

All one can really say is that, with hindsight, Palast’s story looks less and less implausible the more that information emerges about the nature of the government’s dealings with big business over the last nine years – nor, indeed, would it be the only time in which a Minister of State for Trade and Industry found themselves sacrificed to appease the interests of big business as much the same fate befell Tony Benn in 1975, when he was demoted from Trade and Industry to Energy after having campaigned against membership of the EEC in that year’s referendum, for which he attracted the ire of the then largely pro-EU business community.

The Powergen and other energy deals are by no means the only allegation arising out of Palast’s ‘Lobbygate’ investigations.

Of more direct relevance to the matter of Prescott and the Dome, Palast claims that at around the same time that Enron and friends were sniffing around the UK emergy market, Prescott’s department, which was then called the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, was giving serious consideration to a new tax on supermarket car parks that, had it been taken forward, would have cost Tesco around £20million – not a huge amount compared to the kind of profits that Tesco rakes in these days but, according Palast, enough to motivate them to go looking for a better deal.

And that, Palast alleges is exactly what they got – no new tax on car parks in return for a one-off £11 million sponsorship deal with… guess what..?

Yes, you guessed it, the Millennium Dome. And to make things a little more interesting, Palast even claims that the wording in a government white paper which effectively spiked any prospect of a tax on supermarket car parks was almost identical to wording put forward by lobbyists working for Tesco and that, by extension, Tesco were actually writing government policy on this issue.

One other interesting point emerges out this particular story, as Palast also conveys the impression that Prescott wasn’t exactly operating as his own man in this particular alleged deal and that if a deal really was struck between Tesco and the government then the deal-maker lay elsewhere with instructions being passed on to Prescott by special policy advisers attached to number 10.

And then there’s the big one… Murdoch.

Over the last ten years, the New Labour project has enjoyed a measure of open support and largess from the Murdoch media empire that would have been frankly unthinkable at any time in the previous 20 years. The Sun, for example, began life in 1964 as a replacement for the Labour-supporting Daily Herald, and started out as mid-market left-of-centre daily which never really took off, before being sold to Rupert Murdoch by IPC/Mirror Group in 1969 – Murdoch then relaunched the paper as a tabloid, which remained nominally supportive of Labour, although generally agnostic during the two election campaigns of 1974, before switching over to the Tories on Thatcher’s ascendancy to the leadership of the party in 1975.

For a little over 20 years, from 1975 until it declared for Blair in 1996, The Sun was solidly Tory, building up its reputation as the paper that could swing a general election on the back of calling, correctly, the outcome of the 1992 general election, which Labour had been expected to win by a fairly narrow margin right up to polling day – although whether this is more a matter of correlation implies causation than any real influence on the outcome of the election is rather more open to question when one considers that one the only other occasions that is reported on elections that were markedly too close to call – both in 1974 – it kept a deliberately low profile and avoiding nailing its political colours to the mast. However one views this, the Sun had no problem in trading on its perceived influence over the outcome of the 1992 election, declaring openly that ‘IT WAS THE SUN WOT WON IT’, nor did Murdoch have any difficulty, according to Palast, in turning this reputation into leverage when it came to dealing with Blair and the New Labour project.

So what was the deal? What did Murdoch get in return for ditching Major’s lame duck premiership back in 1996 and taking up with Blair, Labour young pretender?

Well, again according to Palast, concessions in two key piece of legislation, both of which could have had a significant impact on Murdoch’s business interests in the UK.

The first of these to hit the statute books was the Competition Act 1998.  Back in 1997, Murdoch could easily have found himself in a bit of bind as the competition regulators of the day begain to take more and more interest in Murdoch’s alleged predatory pricing practices. However, according the Palast, the word was passed down to Rupert, via a firm of lobbyists with close connections to the freshly-minted New Labour regime, that any such problems could easily be made to go away by means of a bit of legislative legerdemain inth eupcoming Competition Bill – provide, of course, that Murdoch’s various UK media interest made sure to make the just the right kind of supportive noise about the Blair government by way of return. And since then who ca say that Murdoch hasn’t led a bit of a charmed life when it comes to avoiding the attention of the UK competition regulators. Consider the extent to which Murdoch’s Sky ’empire’ has been constructed on the back of its acquiring exclusive and near-exclusive rights to key live sporting events, from Premiership football to England Test Matches, the latter being, at one time, on the DCMS’s list of protected events that had to be available to terrestrial  networks… and now consider that it took intervention from the EU competition regulators, not those int he UK.  to begin to break up Sky’s monopoly over live Premiership football.

Coincidence? You decide…

*Oh, and I should mention. for my Labour readership, that the firm of lobbyists which Palast claim acted as the go-between between the government and Murdoch was one LLM – Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn to give it its full name. I doubt very much that I need to giving anyone a compass to help the work out who the ‘Lawson’ is in this case…

The second Act on which Palast alleges that Blair traded legislative content for guaranteed support from Murdoch is one that is likely to be far more controversial for Labour supporters – the Employment Act 1999, and specifically the sections dealing with Trade Union recognition, which Palast alleges were toned down to suit Murdoch’s interests, not least that of keeping the unions out of his controversial Wapping plant.

To be fair, Palast’s account of these alleged deals does, at least, portray them as ones in which Labour drove a bargain with Murdoch not just by offering concessions but on the back of threats that they could make life rather more difficult for dear old Rupert with both the competition and union recognition legislation if he didn’t play ball and wound up backing the losing side – but then that’s not really the point, is it. Not when Palast is claiming that important pieces of legislation, including one that goes right to the heart of the Labour movement and its relationship with the Trade Unions, were written specifically to suit, or at least not interfere with, the interests of a media tycoon who was in a position to – maybe, possibily – influence the outcome of future general elections and the party’s prospects of hanging on to power.

If Palast is on the money, then within this government’s first two years in office it rewrote the UK’s energy policy and altered the post-privatisation competition regulations on the energy sector introduced by the Tories, largely at the behest of a US President with a clear and present interest in keeping some of past campaign funders sweet, did a u-turn on a proposed new tax in return for a big name sponsor for the Dome and traded concessions on two flagship pieces of legislation, one of which goes right to the heart of the Labour movement and its relationship with the trade unions in return for the guaranteed largesse of the biggest media tycoon in the UK market.

Now wind forward three or four years and we have a new Mr President, Bush the 41st’s favoured son, and a whole new set of US corporate interests – and major campaign funders – eyeing up the UK as the Europe’s soft moral underbelly on gambling – and when Big Casino calls, the Bush family is always happy to lend a helping hand. In 1998, Mirage Casino Corporation were having a few difficulties in getting a licence to operate in Argentina, until Poppy Bush made a few calls to his old buddy, Argentine President, Carlos Menem.

And so it can to pass that Mirage got its licence, and Bush 41 claimed – truthfully – that he had no direct interest in this deal.. and a short while later a nice fat cheque for over $400,000 dollars dropped accidently into Republican party coffers…

Remember God helps those who help themselves  – and the Bush family help itself to an estimated $450 million in order to fund the favoured son’s run for the Presidency – and that’s a hell of a lost of quid pro quo to cover in a mere eight years.

Yes, the government’s dealing with Phil Anschutz and beyond, with the other big US and Australian casino interests sniffing around after a slice of the UK market, has many of the elements that Palast identified during his ‘Lobbygate’ investigations – major corporate interests who also happen to have been major donors to the current US president’s political campaign funds and, in Anschutz’s case, to a series of other right-wing ultra-conservative causes dear to Bush 43’s heart; the Millennium Dome and even a Murdoch connection – Anschutz hired Murdoch’s son-in-law, Matthew Freud, to take care of his PR needs while making his run to take over the Dome and, latterly, to shoehorn a resort casino into the whole project.

After what you’ve just read in regards to Palast’s Lobbygate investigations as ask yourself this – if Palast is anywhere close to the truth, is it such a reach to think that the UK government may have got to by the US gambling lobby in much the same way?

However, one needn’t think that such weighty issues have caused the government to forget some of its other interests closer to home.

Take a look at the shortlist for the one big resort casino licence; the Dome, Wembley Stadium, Glasgow, Manchester, Blackpool, Sheffield, Cardiff and Newcastle… but for odd electoral aberration – mainly Sarah Teather – each and every one of the players who’re still in the game for the big one looks very much as if it would generally regarded as natural Labour territory. Remember, one of the requirement for bidders for the super casino licence was that they demostrate how their bid ties in to a wider regeneration project – not so much ‘show me the money’ as ‘show me how a big a pork barrel you have to put on the table’…

Those of you who may be more than a little concerned at the possible social cost of these new casinos might also like to note that amongst the various applications forwarded to the Casino Advisory Panel one finds comments such as this one (from the Newcastle bid):

there appears to be evidence for a relatively high propensity to gamble in Newcastle and the North East, and growth in participation in casino gaming. The local catchment shows around 50 per cent higher overall gambling propensity compared to the UK as a whole. Market penetration in the North East/ Yorkshire region was 4 per cent compared with a 5 per cent estimate for the UK;

data from the UK Gambling Commission supports the view that the North region has a growing market. Regional “drop” per year is higher than any other provincial region, and while average spend per customer is lower than the UK average, growth over the past three years has been high; and

deregulation is expected to result in a broadening of the appeal of casinos, driving further growth in attendance levels and market penetration rates. Lessons from other deregulated markets support the argument that higher penetration of the market can be achieved, with around 25% in the USA, 20% in South Africa and 10% in Australia.

Whoo-hoo – there’s gold in them thar Geordies… I do like that phrase – there appears to be evidence for a relatively high propensity to gamble in Newcastle and the North East – yeah, there’s a sucker born every minute and we look like we’ve got more of a share of them than most.

Although of perhaps greater interest are the persistant complaints by anti-gambling campaigners that the government’s Casino Advisory Panel are refusing to consider what it refers to as ‘generic’ evidence about the social costs of gambling – which is, in the main, evidence of the impact of large resprt casinos on addiction rates, debt and other social problems from the US, South Africa and Australia – even though they appear to have no problem considering ‘generic’ evidence about market penetration rates from those same countries.

Let’s put this back into cash terms to make it a a touch easier to understand the sacle of what we’re dealing with here – in 2005, Britain’s 138 heavily regulated casino’s to a ‘drop’ (i.e stakes) of £4.1 billion and a ‘house win’ (gaming profit) of £715 million on an estimated 5% market penetation – and that’s without any revenues from what will be the big moneyspinner for Britain’s first resort casino, the banks of fixed odds gambling terminals and unlimited cash prize slot machines – just imagine what the take will be if, in future, these new casinos take us anywhere close to the 15-25% market penetration found overseas.

And then consider just what kind of revenues the government can expect from claiming VAT on the take from gamin machines and up to 40% of gaming revenue from other casino activities – not to the mention the 15% kickback that English Partnerships will get if ‘Honest Phil’ gets his casino at the dome.

Rather put the whole business of loans for peerages and casinos for cowboy outfits into a very different light, don’t you think.

Back to La Toynbee for a final comment, and the one of the question she asks in her article…

…how do you pay for democracy when voters despise politics and won’t join parties?

Well who says parties are the only way to have democracy – other than the parties themselves – and why should the taxpayer be required to pay for a system that many believe to be fundamentally corrupt and rotten to the core…

…with good reason, if Greg Palast’s work is anything to go by…

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