Hain and working class morality
James Turley calls for accountability of elected representatives
It is almost certainly the case that nobody in Britain requires further evidence of the sleaze in mainstream politics.
Yet still it comes. Labour MP and secretary for work and pensions (and Wales) Peter Hain is the latest bourgeois politician to face the consequences of bungling your bungs, having neglected to mention to the electoral commission a total of £103,000 in donations towards his campaign to become deputy leader of the Labour Party. Hain, for his part, denies any deliberate wrongdoing - he claims that the failure to announce the donations was an “administrative error”. It is a particularly clear symptom of the political culture of neoliberalism that this excuse is as plausible as it is, that we can almost accept that a politician could ‘forget’ a six-figure sum regarding a contest as relatively inconsequential as that for the deputy Labour leadership.
The key word is ‘almost’. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has said he could not decide whether Hain was guilty of “utter incompetence” or “deliberate obfuscation”. In reality, it seems, Hain has managed a perfect synthesis of the two. The twist in the story is the manner in which large parts of the £103,000 were obtained - through a ‘think tank’ called the Progressive Policy Forum.
It certainly sounds like a think tank from the name - but it does not take much journalism to ascertain that this is a very peculiar specimen indeed. It is not registered with the charity commission, like most think tanks, but rather as a limited company. This is certainly not unheard of - the Centre for Policy Studies and the Policy Exchange, for example, are both technically limited companies - but, while those are ‘limited by guarantee’, a special category for not-for-profit companies, PPF Ltd is exactly the same sort of company as for any ordinary small business.
This technical curiosity, however, is rather overshadowed by the fact that PPF has been completely inactive in its entire existence (barring its role in ‘Haingate’). It has produced no papers, and has apparently no intellectuals involved in it. As the Channel 4 website archly asks, “Where are the thinkers? Where is their tank?” (http://tinyurl.com/3cwjje).
This would appear to point towards another example of Labour figures funnelling dodgy campaign money through third parties to dampen suspicions. The only real bit of evidence to the contrary is the surreal incompetence of the whole affair. If Hain wished to simply funnel money into his campaign, why bother creating a spectral think tank? Sure, it could provide extra cover - but only if it appeared to actually function. All it would have taken to lift suspicions on this score is a small run of some cooked-to-order third-way position paper. In reality, though, they did not even bother to set up a website.
For us, the central question is not that Hain failed to declare the donations. It is the fact that he received them from (extremely dubious) business sources. In return for what? Whether or not the bourgeoisie considers such payments legally acceptable, in terms of our working class morality the word ‘corrupt’ is entirely apposite.
While honest, politically aware people will do not much more than shrug their shoulders and crack a weary smile at this oddly pathetic incident, the sight of other bourgeois parties attempting to make political capital out of the Hain affair will no doubt provoke derision. The Tories have remained relatively circumspect, not yet calling for Hain’s resignation - no doubt troubled by similar allegations regarding leading Cameroon George Osborne, but are likely to close in when he becomes more vulnerable; the Lib Dems are already on the warpath, as we have seen.
Reducing this to a matter of Hain’s venality (or incompetence), or even that of the New Labour administration, is a self-evident fiction. The fact is, all three parties, along with their contemporaries in most ‘bourgeois democracies’ worldwide, behave in exactly the same manner. The system demands it: in order to function effectively as a buttress to the capitalist order, such systems require and produce a certain sort of politician, a pliable figure easily bribed - the careerist.
It is worth looking at the basic career arc of such politicians - and who better to take as our example than the right honourable Peter Gerald Hain MP? Hain was born in South Africa, the son of liberal anti-apartheid activists who were forced into exile when he was still a teenager. While at university, he became a key figure in the British anti-apartheid movement, and used his prominence in that capacity to rise to the presidency of the Young Liberals. His political activities were often dangerous, targeted at what was then a powerful imperialist outpost and ally of the British and American establishments. Indeed, he became a cause célèbre when, in 1975, he was sensationally framed by South African security forces for a bank robbery.
Only a few years, however, after becoming the YL president, he switched his allegiance to Labour. He tided over in his role as a trade union official, becoming enamoured with Neil Kinnock’s cementation of the Labour right ascendancy, and was elected MP for Neath - a safe Labour constituency - in 1991. In 1997 he received his first ministerial portfolio under Tony Blair.
It is important to note several things - firstly, successful careerist politicians are not necessarily completely mercenary. Many are marked by their participation, in another life (perhaps as students), in activism to one degree or another. (Even a far ‘purer’ careerist, the Tory-turned-arch-Blairite Shaun Woodward, was involved in the campaign in support of maverick English academic Colin MacCabe, who had been sacked by Cambridge University for his advocacy of Marxism and avant-garde French philosophy.)
The second lesson is that careerism is not restricted to parliament. To take only the current crop of Labour front-benchers, who summarise the phenomenon in most minds, we have people who were climbing greasy poles in the legal profession, the unions, the NUS, even the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain ... It is best to conceive of all this as a great process of production, which takes in the raw material of idealistic but ambitious youngsters, and spits out at the other end well-coiffed MPs. The various stages of this production, the ‘factories’ if you will, are all sites of the battle against the preferred political agents of the bourgeoisie: they include as many working class organisations as not, and certainly include the more influential revolutionary parties (that ultimate Blairite, Alan Milburn, does not share some of his colleagues’ roots in Eurocommunism, but was instead a Trotskyist radical).
The third lesson is obvious: politics is a career. And it is a well paid one for those who get themselves elected. The basic MP’s salary weighs in at £60,277; on top of this, there are various bonuses for different roles, second-home allowances, and all round probably the best wages-and-benefit packet going outside of the city elite. An idealistic-but-ambitious youngster has a choice between this and the more philanthropic end of law.
The point of all this is simple - careerism is an immediate and continual problem for revolutionary working class organisations. The first lesson implies that careerists often pass through such organisations; the second means that we will encounter these people, as opponents and allies, in almost every arena of struggle; and the third means that combating careerism requires conscious effort for revolutionaries.
Unfortunately, such conscious efforts have not always been forthcoming. While many organisations - for instance, the Socialist Party/Militant tradition - has made a fast rule out of limiting the salaries of elected representatives to the level of an average skilled worker (the excess being donated to party funds), others have been less scrupulous. The most infamous example is the recent history of the Socialist Workers Party, which not only failed to support this basic principle as binding on Respect representatives, but actively opposed it when the CPGB proposed it. We insist on this principle, along with such measures as the right of recall, in order to achieve the accountability of all elected representatives.
The results of SWP opportunism are clear for all to see. George Galloway insisted on retaining his entire income so as to be able to campaign in exactly the way he wanted, no matter what relation it had to the agreed policies of Respect, or how embarrassing it was to other members or the organisation. He kept control over his MP’s salary in order to avoid his party having control over him.
But a worker’s wage was one of the ‘shibboleths’ the SWP was prepared to ditch to keep Galloway sweet. And now we have the punch line - the great split, with the SWP on one side and Galloway on the other. Suddenly John Rees and co have discovered that Galloway was no “workers’ tribune”.