Peccadilloes, smears, and scandals

Casually salacious blogging ruins MI5's deal with whips, writes Jim Moody

Advisers sacked or strongly cautioned. Others disgraced. Gordon Brown decries malefactors’ actions. But still it is business as usual in the Labour dung market.

As an adviser on political strategy to those at the top of the Labour Party for several years, Damian ‘Mad Dog’ McBride was in a charmed circle. But, while he and others like him were adept at rubbishing Labour opponents, he has now come unstuck before he got a chance to try out the same scurrilous strategy on the Tories. The political culture that McBride’s fall from grace has uncovered for consumers of the mass media is, of course, nothing new: this kind of smear tactics may be an extreme example of the genre, but is actually not that unusual. A whiff of the bullying foulness of it all has emerged in recent times thanks to BBC Four’s The thick of it.

Trying to take a web leaf or two out of the Tories’ book of casually salacious blogging, McBride got LabourList web honcho Derek Draper into hot water by discussing with him a Labour version, to be called Red Rag. This was to have been launched with character-assassinations of selected opposition politicians, and even included proposals to bad-mouth their spouses, in the process casting aspersions on their mental health or anything else slightly out of the ordinary that could be worked up for the slavering Daily Mail target audience.

New Labour’s Draper welcomed McBride’s foul suggestion and was later less than contrite when it all blew up, even lamely excusing this gross behaviour by comparing it with similar pub discussions of ministerial advisers. As if that were any amelioration! McBride and Draper lay exposed only because their email correspondence was leaked; Charlie Whelan, another close adviser, was copied into it, so all involved assumed the highest level of support for their clever wheeze.

Spreading gossip about the private lives and individual propensities of parliamentary politicians as a political weapon is utterly bankrupt. But this has been part of the modus vivendi of Labour leadership hangers-on since at least the 1990s, from Alistair Campbell under Blair to the present sorry crew of Brown apologists. At least Campbell had been a competent journalist and cleverly managed the way in which the Labour government’s take on news was broken. Whereas McBride was merely a treasury mandarin turned overweening amateur publicist- though still paid by public money.

Ironically, exposure of MPs’ peccadilloes - if what is revealed happens to be accurate, that is - can remove a powerful, covert weapon that may be of use to governing parties. One of the tasks of the state’s security service (MI5) is to gather all kinds of personal information on MPs that is in no way intended for public consumption. MI5 has from the beginning passed such gutter sweepings to the parliamentary whips’ office so that MPs can under certain circumstances be pressurised to toe the government party’s line.

Leaving that aside, however, why are politicians and their aides so frequently tempted either to smear their opponents or leak personal details in the hope of discrediting them? The answer lies in the fact that it can be a devastating blow for a party to be voted out of office at any level, but especially from government. We are talking not only about loss of prestige and influence, but about lucrative careers being endangered - for a whole party hierarchy. Even those MPs who start out as committed and conscientious practitioners will soon become accustomed to the parliamentary gravy train, depending on salary and expenses to featherbed them.

Of course, elected representatives of the working class ought to be different. Communist MPs would be expected to submit themselves to party discipline on a principled basis. It is an ideological commitment to be part of the party’s overall work - key perhaps, but not by any means its epitome. But they too would not be immune to various temptations - fingers in the state’s ruling class pie and snouts in the corruptive trough. Communists would be elected to parliament to expose the ruling class and its parties’ manoeuvres against the working class, using it to become people’s tribunes. They would certainly not be there to feather their own nests, and were they to display any such tendency they would be removed by the party.

Ever since the Chartists, it is has been a point of principle that workers’ representatives should receive no more than a skilled worker’s wage or salary plus legitimate expenses. Workers’ representatives must hand over to their party everything in excess of that. Otherwise there is a tendency to become distanced from the rest of the class, to become enthralled by and then recruited to the cosy club of parliament, ‘all pulling together’: class collaboration by another name.

Bourgeois parliamentarians generally regard it as their god-given right to be paid handsomely out of public funds. Even if the state sees them as its good and faithful servants, worth every penny (one third of a million pounds annually in the case of the prime minister), communists as working class partisans do not. To call a halt to the money-grubbing, communists not only make it a given that our own representatives are paid at the level of a skilled worker, but demand that this should apply to all MPs of whatever party. The undeniable corruption is endemic to the system itself. It is clear that many MPs strive to get the most money out of their time as parliamentarians - and, as the latest episode demonstrates, they and their coterie are often prepared to stoop to any level to preserve their positions.

The denizens of parliament can only get away with their dirty work because they are unaccountable. When was the last time that an MP was impeached, let alone forced to stand in a by-election thanks to a recall campaign by her or his constituents? Despite the prominent demand by the Chartists and working class partisans up to the present for recallability of MPs, this is still an outstanding part of the democratic deficit in Britain. Why should MPs not be recallable? They should be held to account for all that they do. How else can they be immediately be brought to book? This or any other remedy was unavailable to us when MPs ignored the majority’s view at the start of the Iraq war, for example: we then had no democratic recourse.

And why should not parliament be elected annually? At present, the governing party’s leaders can get up to all sorts of tricks to bamboozle the electorate while picking the most favourable time to go to the polls in a general election, for which the maximum interval in the UK is an outrageous five years. Election to parliament must not be a sinecure or a licence to print money, bastardising any attempt to force legislators to face up to the consequences of their actions. Extreme democracy dictates that we press all the more for annual parliaments and recallability of MPs. And it should go without saying that communists call for the abolition of the second chamber and the position of head of state.