I had my attention drawn this morning to a blog post by Jerry Hayes relating how, when he was a Conservative MP, he used to be "pimped" out by his party and sent to attend various functions where he would entertain party donors. The piece appears to be a response to the story in the Telegraph that a "Business Dinner" will be held at this year's Conservative party conference where, for a thousand pound a pop, a lucky few will dine with George Osborne and various "prominent Conservative MPs".
Hayes portrays the people who turn up at these events as a mixture of eccentric old farts and bigots and the gist of the piece is that these affairs are all very innocuous and nothing to worry about. Now I understand it's humorous, but there's also something staggeringly complacent about this piece. Hayes says that:
People pay to rub shoulders with the not so great and not so good in the same way that they go to Madame Tussaud’s and are snapped with a Lenny Henry manikin. But they have just as much influence over the real dummies as they had over the wax ones. If you honestly think that by having a warm glass of Blue Nun with William Hague that he will act on your brilliant plan to pull out of the EU and enter into a trading partnership with Nigeria, well, more fool you.
There's something about the casual, jokey tone that, inadvertently or not, normalises and trivialises a form of corruption which is shocking to voters but that the political class accepts as routine. "Don't you worry", is the message, "that's just the way we do things round here".
Naturally, corruption is rarely going to be as crude as he caricatures it, but can it honestly be the case that by selling the very wealthy access to politicians parties are not also selling influence? The real corruption may take place elsewhere of course, as Hayes at least admits, but it's easy to imagine a businessmen at these functions flagging up concerns of the "industry" with a particular regulation or law - all discussed in general terms, you understand, and then perhaps mention of a possible future, larger donation, followed by the exchange of numbers and later more private meetings. At the very least these occasions remind politicians who their paymasters are and the constituencies whose interests they are expected to serve. It is, regrettably for us, our politics and our democracy that is being pimped out, and not just our politicians.
The Telegraph goes on to inform us that in opposition the Conservatives ran a "Leader's Club" where donors who gave £50,000 could be expected to be invited to dinner at Cameron's home in London. I'm not sure whether Hayes thinks this is "perfectly harmless" as well. The truth is the public is right to sense that any kind of "cash for access" stinks and should be prohibited. The fact "all parties have been doing it since time immemorial" is not an argument.
If public distaste at these grubby get togethers can generate some momentum towards a citizen-controlled system of public funding, of the kind I proposed recently, then so much the better and perhaps we could put a stop to big pimpin' in our politics once and for all.
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