Conway scandal silence
They just keep on coming - yet another financial scandal ripples through Westminster. James Turley looks at the facts, the lessons and the embarrassment of the SWP
It seems like only yesterday that I sat down to write on the then-escalating scandal over Peter Hain’s campaign donations (in fact, it was three weeks ago - ‘Peter Hain and working class morality’ Weekly Worker January 17).
Since I wrote that article, Hain has gone, having resigned his ministerial posts pending a police investigation into, to use the euphemistic parlance of the state and bourgeois press, ‘irregularities’ in his campaign funding. He is not the only ruling class deputy to fall on hard times, however - influential Tory MP Derek Conway has had the whip withdrawn (effectively expelling him from the parliamentary party) by an incensed David Cameron after a severely embarrassing scandal of his own.
Conway had, over the course of three years, employed his son, Freddie, as a ‘parliamentary researcher’, while the latter pursued his studies at the University of Newcastle. The Commons committee for standards and privileges, after investigating this ‘employment’, found that there was no record of any work ever having been done by the Conway fils, with only various Conway family members testifying to the contrary. The commission was particularly scathing about £13,000 worth of bonuses and pension contributions, which Conway has been ordered to repay. His wife and another son are similarly employed, the former as a secretary on a £40,000 salary, but the commission made no allegations regarding them.
The Conway saga has had an extra sting for those of us not blessed with lavish ruling class lifestyles, since it emerged that eldest son Henry had spent some of that money on a lavish party with the theme, ‘Fuck off, I’m rich’, at a Chelsea nightclub.
What’s the big deal?
So far, so ordinary - this sort of nepotism is hardly unprecedented in the houses of parliament: recall the so-called Betsygate scandal, when the wife of hapless ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith appeared not to be doing an awful lot for her considerable, publicly funded salary. The BBC website estimates that at least 100 MPs employ family members in some capacity, usually spouses (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7223756.stm). Of these, most are likely to involve at least low-level financial fiddles consistent with the generally fraudulent practices of ruling class politicians.
What is particularly interesting is the reactions on the left - or lack thereof. Various New Labour hatchet men have weighed in with the false self-assurance of those who know their attacks convince nobody of their inner ‘moral fibre’ - we can ignore them.
What about the Socialist Workers Party? Typically, Socialist Worker (February 9) is very quick to score some quick rabble-rousing points whenever a ruling-class politician hits a scandal. Yet there is nothing in the latest issue, apart from a cartoon where a council tenant (“I promise to get a job”) is contrasted with an MP (“I promise to get a job for everyone in my family”).
There is, of course, the possibility that this matter somehow completely shot over the heads of the SW editor, but it is doubtful - I have not had a conversation with a leftist of any stripe in the past few days without the Conway affair coming up. More likely, the SWP leaders are fully aware that to make a meal of Derek Conway would land them in all kinds of difficulties, given their own record on the key issue of the case (see below).
That issue is accountability. Communists have no problem with an MP or any other representative employing a relative as a paid worker per se. The key problem here is that it is all up to the MP. Conway is, under the current practices of parliament and the Conservative Party, perfectly free to pick and choose whoever he wants as his staff, and fire them at his (and only his) discretion. There are certain legal limits, of course, of which he has recently fallen foul - but these are hardly stringent. After all, Betsygate came to nothing.
The greatest single manifestation of the constant pressure of our class enemies, within the working class body politic, is careerism. It spreads quickly, because it is tied up with objective interests - to serve in a salaried position in a bourgeois or class-collaborationist body (ie, a parliament, a trade union or even a reformist party) is to have your immediate livelihood umbilically linked to the bourgeois establishment. That is where the money comes from. It is, of course, just as true of any parliamentary or other full-time staff, since a certain amount of that wage fund generally comes from the public purse too.
It is a vital and immediate issue, therefore, that all such representatives and employees are accountable to the party whom they represent.
In concrete terms, we demand that the salary of all elected representatives be held to the equivalent of the average skilled worker’s wage. But despite the publicity about those ‘responsible’ MPs agreeing to limit their latest rise to 1.9%, it is clear that most regard themselves as entitled to a much bigger salary than the overwhelming majority of their constituents. They would fight such a change tooth and nail.
However, there is no reason why, in the meantime, MPs representing working class organisations should not accept a worker’s wage - any excess from, for instance, a parliamentary salary (starting at £60,000) should be donated to party funds. In the first place, this would make it unlikely that socialist organisations would attract too many of those who gravitate towards politics simply as a career option and who are therefore condemned to a certain reformist and class-collaborationist tendency in their practical politics.
When it comes to an MP’s researchers and other workers, they should be employed by the working class party, not the individual MP. By making expenses and so on the responsibility of the party, the party can ensure that the political activity of its representatives can be controlled. It also has the virtue of minimising the separation between the representative and the party membership - and the working class as a whole.
The party rank and file must also have the right, the power and the courage to ‘withdraw the whip’ if necessary - to politically, as well as financially, hold representatives to account. This is a right, furthermore, that must be asserted openly and honestly by the party, in all negotiations with potential allies.
Many parties on the left do, indeed, insist on at least the worker’s wage - the Socialist Party/Militant tradition does so proudly, as did the Scottish Socialist Party’s MSPs, and even John Marek, the Welsh assembly member for the stunted left-nationalist formation, Forward Wales. Most smaller left groups have adopted the same rule, regardless of whether there are any representatives to hold to account - the CPGB, Workers Power, etc.
Many Weekly Worker readers will be aware that the glaring exception to this rule, in recent times at least, is the SWP and its attitude to Respect MPs. Despite in the past having argued for the principle of the worker’s wage, it consistently opposed its application to Respect MPs - and hence to George Galloway specifically. The SWP majority voted it down at the founding conference in January 2004, along with a whole raft of other things it ostensibly believed in.
At the launch conference, the SWP’s Paul Holborrow (now a rightwing dissident) argued: “I don’t believe that there is anyone here who would not aspire to the principle of a worker’s pay for MPs, but Respect is not a socialist organisation. This would be exclusive of the people we might otherwise attract. What are we to say to George Galloway? Are we to say that it is a condition that he takes a worker’s wage?”
As we reported at the time, many people shouted from the floor the correct answer: yes! That is exactly what we are to say to George Galloway (‘Socialism: the final shibboleth’ Weekly Worker January 29 2004).
The correctness of this answer has been confirmed negatively by the subsequent course of Respect. Galloway, to be sure, was no financial burden on the party. He paid his own travel expenses, hotel bills and the like. However, in allowing him complete financial independence, the SWP let go of any possibility of controlling his activities in any way. The Celebrity big brother debacle was only the most farcical and frivolous of the results.
More significantly, there was George’s support for anti-abortion positions in parliament - politically distasteful to the vast majority of Respect members, but passed by in silence by the SWP until the split.
Of course, it was the nature of Respect as a popular front - where the agenda is set by and policy restricted to what the right is prepared to accept - that determined the SWP’s attitude. The prospect of holding Galloway and the celebrities or the mainly muslim ‘community leaders’ and businessmen to account was never on the cards. Respect is a ‘coalition, not a party’, it was always argued. As ye sow, so ye shall reap …
It should now be clear why communists oppose this sort of opportunism. Effective political organisations will either be controlled by the membership or controlled by unaccountable bureaucrats and leaders. The SWP opted for the latter - we prefer the former.