Sam Bright inspects the former Prime Minister’s plans to rewire British politics

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Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made a bold statement against nepotism and profiteering in Westminster, labelling the post-2019 Conservative Government as the most corrupt “at least for a century”, in terms of the “scale of the resources that appear to have been wasted, or not properly used.”

Brown was speaking on LBC following the launch of a flagship report focused on rewiring Britain’s constitutional settlement. “We need a new Whitehall and we need a new Westminster, and that’s why our proposals are radical,” he said.

The report, which has been broadly endorsed by Labour leader Keir Starmer, proposes a series of drastic reforms to devolve power away from Westminster and clean up the corridors of power. These include:

  • Abolishing the House of Lords in its current form and creating an elected assembly that is “more representative of the nations and regions of the UK”.
  • Moving 50,000 civil servants out of London.
  • Devolving more power and resources to nations, regions, towns and cities.
  • Banning MPs from holding second jobs unless they are necessary to maintain professional qualifications.
  • Banning political parties from receiving foreign money.
  • A new body to ensure all appointments in public life are made on merit.
  • Creating an anti-corruption commissioner to “prevent and where appropriate investigate and prosecute corruption in public life”.
  • The expansion of Freedom of Information to private companies awarded public contracts.

“People have lost trust in the legitimacy and the credibility of national institutions,” over recent years, Brown said.

Indeed, it is significant that the opposition is addressing the slurry of corruption stories that have emerged over the last three years, many of which have been exposed by independent publications like Byline Times.

This newspaper revealed, for example, that £3 billion in COVID contracts had been awarded to Conservative donors and associates during the pandemic – to firms that have gone on to donate more than £600,000 back to the party. Contracts worth some £46.7 billion were awarded to private firms during the pandemic, none of which are subject to freedom of information legislation, which requires state bodies to release documents, when requested, that are within the public interest. Brown’s proposals would open up these private entities to greater public scrutiny.

Successive Conservative governments since 2019 have also been occupied with awarding public positions – including in the House of Lords – to their most prominent and affluent supporters. One former Government official told the Financial Times during Boris Johnson’s time in office that “there has been a lot of placement of political cronies” and that “Number 10 has taken a close interest in it”.

So, more than a quarter of those who have given in excess of £100,000 to the Conservative Party in recent years have been awarded a peerage or an honour, increasing to 55% among those who have given more than £1.5 million to the party. At least 16 individuals with links to the party have been handed key non-executive roles in Government departments, it was reported in July 2021.

Anatomyof the PPE Procurement Scandal

Sam Bright

However, the House of Lords is not only a hive of cronyism. In its investigation into Russian interference in UK politics, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee found that “a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state”. It argued that “these relationships should be carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.”

These Russian links are evident throughout politics, with estimates suggesting that donors who had made money from Russia or Russians have given some £2 million to the Conservatives since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. It was also possible for foreign citizens to vote in the recent Conservative leadership election – raising the additional spectre of potential foreign interference.

Brown’s idea of creating an anti-corruption commissioner chimes with a recent report by Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which recommended that ministers should face legal sanctions for breaking the Ministerial Code, which guides the conduct of ministers. Indeed, Conservative chair of the committee William Wragg commented that: “It is incumbent on the Government to ensure a robust and effective system for upholding standards in public life is put in place, with proper sanctions for those who break the rules.”


Regional Rebalancing

It is notable also that Brown and Labour are making an argument about the constitution that encompasses both corruption and regional rebalancing. “We’re dealing with a broken economy, but we’re also dealing with a broken politics,” Brown told LBC. In this respect, the former Prime Minister’s proposals appear to fulfil the wishes of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who told me that we need a “complete rewiring” of Britain’s political system in order to deliver on the Government’s fabled ‘levelling up’ agenda – including wholesale reform of the House of Lords.

It therefore seems that Labour’s Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Lisa Nandy, has been won over to the idea of structural constitutional reform, having previously said that she was “frustrated with the endless debate in Westminster – and actually some parts of local and regional government as well – about structures.”

Yet, although Labour appears to have accepted some reforms that previously – or perhaps even currently – make it uncomfortable, there are several other difficult constitutional questions that remain unanswered. The report recommends reversing the changes to mayoral voting systems, to once again use a proportional system, but does not recommend the same for Westminster elections.

There have also been various proposals in recent years to move civil servants out of London – not least a report commissioned by then-Chancellor Gordon Brown in 2003 – which have never really materialised. It’s unclear whether Brown’s new proposals will be more successful.

And, insofar as new, more rigorous regulations will blunt the power of the prime minister and their Cabinet, the report fails to address the intimate, corrupting relationship between the media and politicians that warps public perceptions of politics.

The report does not deal with the question of Leveson Two, an inquiry shelved by the Conservatives in 2018, that was set to investigate the nature of the relationships between journalists and the police, following historic allegations of phone hacking by tabloid newspapers.

Even despite this, Brown has predicted that the next Labour manifesto will be “one of the great reforming documents of the century”. Time will tell whether this is truly the case.

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