Monday, 8 March 2010

Canvassing, Stalking and the Pimps of Political Corruption

The recent scandal over Members of Parliament and their expenses claims, and lesser scandals (involving much bigger amounts of money!) over funding contributions to political parties at the national level, has served to protect the real core of political corruption in the United Kingdom from public attention. The people in the British Political system who are best placed to improperly enrich themselves are neither ministers nor backbench MPs: it is the Constituency Agents and Constituency Party Chairmen who are in the best seats. Very few laws and regulations specifically apply to them, and those that do are focused on the conduct of elections in the first place and the practical management of the constituency party and any associated clubs in the second. As long as these functions are conducted within the letter and broad spirit of the law, the agent and chairman are almost invisible to the electorate, the returning officer, and electoral commission. Not that returning officers and the electoral commission are really anti-corruption bodies in any case.

MPs and Ministers, on the other hand, are under the public eye, and the eyes of their peers, the whole time, which is why an unwarranted expenses claim of a few hundred pounds is not merely a scandal, but one which can destroy a career. In such an environment, the scope for really serious, million-pound corruption would seem to be almost nil. It is the invisible men who have the freedom. And that's not their only advantage.

Traditionally, there has been one constituency party per constituency, so a 1:1:1 ratio between agents, chairmen and MPs. But with parliamentary boundary changes and a desire to save costs, in some cases one agent may cover two or three constituencies, and the constituency party apparatus itself may be based on the traditional, and not the current, boundary. But assuming that the traditional situation is still normal, and there's one Agent, Party Chairman and MP per constituency, it is almost always the case that the Agent and Chairman have a dozen or so County Councillors and perhaps a couple of dozen District or Borough Councillors under their wing. If one likens the constituency party to a Roman Galley, the Chairman is setting the course, the Councillors are working the oars, the Agent is walking up and down the gangplank, fondling his whip in an overt sort of way -and the MP is the beautifully carved figurehead on the bow script. The vessel is propelled by the wind and the graft of councillors.

The MP may propose, debate and vote on, laws which are of some concern to property developers, public service contractors and the like. But that's only creating an environment common to the vested interests and all their competitors. They might have a desire for this to move in one direction or another, but it's hardly worth a big investment of cash, unless a limited number of MPs are in a position to deliver a drastic change in the outcome of the legislative process. This isn't the normal situation, especially when, as has been the case since 1997, a single party has enjoyed an overwhelming Parliamentary majority.

The Councillors, however, take weekly decisions that implement existing legislation. An MP may be asked to nod through, or vote against, a Parliamentary order that requires local education authorities to designate approved suppliers for schools to purchase consumables from, a Councillor on the LEA gets a vote on which supplier gets that approval. Who do you think a potential supplier will want to bribe? The Councillor? Correct!

MPs vote on the general shape of planning laws, Councillors vote on specific planning applications. Even the limited number of ministers who have a say in planning matters, generally only have authority over outline planning permission for very big or very sensitive developments, and County Structure plans. The minister does not decide whether Mr A gets permission to build a particular trading estate on a particular field next to a motorway junction or not, but the appropriate local Councillors do!

The difficulty facing any vested interest who wants to bribe a councillor, is that councillors are ordinary citizens, often with full-time day jobs, and they are indeed local, whereas the vested interest may be a big developer or a big company, operating nationally. It would be very difficult for such a vested interest to always identify the right councillors to approach: who were on the right committee, didn't already have a strongly-held view on the development, and were the sort to accept an inducement. Unless they work through the Agent and local party Chairman, that is.

The Agent and Chairman know, not only which councillors are on the appropriate committee, which is after all a matter of public record (if you've got time to look!) but also which way they are likely to vote if no inducement is offered. They will know which councillors are corruptible, and which are not. They can advise, firstly, on whether or not the vested interest needs to corrupt anyone to achieve its aim. Then they can advise on how many votes need to be swung, because it never does to overdo things, and it certainly saves the client money if he corrupts the smallest possible number of Councillors on any one issue.

Then they can advise on who to approach, or they can act as intermediaries if direct contact is inadvisable, and they can advise on what sort of inducement each selected Councillor is likely to need. This might not be a cash bribe, but could be help with a pet project. In extreme cases, the Agent and Chairman are well-placed to bully a resistant Councillor into line.

Where the MP is involved in this process at all, will be to create the right climate of opinion for the vote to be swung, or as what the Russians call a "roof" against investigation by central government or other interest authority, such as the police. Again, no matter how moral the MP is, it's unthinkable to go into any election without the Agent and Chairman completely on your side, so they will toe the line, provided that they are never asked to do anything too outrageous. And the way things are structured in the United Kingdom, it never is necessary for the MP to do anything very much, for corruption to thrive in his constituency. All he really needs to do, is stand on the bow script and feel the wind and spray on his wooden features.

The consequences of this can be small, but corrosive. Medawar recently listened to a minor rant from a nice Irish lady who works on the domestic side of a special needs school in East Anglia. The system of preferred suppliers meant that she was obliged to buy food for school dinners, from a "preferred supplier". In a market town surrounded on all sides by market gardens and farms growing vegetables, she was forced to accept battered, tired produce that had travelled from Holland and Spain and looked as if it had already been rejected by supermarket buyers. She was forced to pay £19.95 per bag for potatoes of unknown provenance, when there were half a dozen farms within a five mile radius of the school that would have sold a bag of fresh, undamaged spuds for £5. "I'm being forced to buy shite for the children, at four times the cost of decent food!" was the entirely justified, furious, complaint.

Bribes are not just paid for planning permission to be granted, but for it to be refused, so that a small developer will be forced to abandon his plans and sell on his site to a larger developer. Houses will be built on land prone to flooding, business parks will be built with lorry access straight onto a major road at an awkward junction, or where there are no adequate sewerage works or the power grid is already overworked.

All of this creates problems, and sometimes fatalities, and therefore it creates anger and unease, which some articulate and public spirited citizens might transform into protest and a widespread demand for investigations and a clean-up of local politics. This leads us to the second area where Agents and local party Chairmen have the edge over Members of Parliament:

The Agent and Chairman, at election time, organize the troops and mastermind any canvassing in a constituency. 90% of the work involved in organized canvassing, is identical to the work involved in organized stalking. Much of the information gathered in canvassing, is useful to stalkers. The methods used to find out which way a citizen is thinking of voting, can be used to look into other aspects of his life. A proportion of the people who are willing to go out canvassing at election time, will be willing to go out stalking between elections. That proportion will usually be tiny, but the Agent and the Chairman will know who they are -and what sort of a payoff they will need.

So, when the corruption leads to inappropriate and damaging actions, that annoy the public, the Agent and Chairman can organize campaigns to suppress the leaders, or potential leaders, of any protest or grassroots campaign. They can bully the whistle-blowers on the Council's permanent staff: they can protect the vested interest from the consequences of getting something that is not in the public interest. A member of Parliament is a chancy and potentially useless target for corruption, but his Agent and Chairman may, in some cases, offer a one-stop shop service.

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