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Self-Interest Casts Yet Another Shadow Over Parliamentary Duty as Peers Use Influence for Personal Gain

04/06/2013 16:11 BST | Updated 03/08/2013 10:12 BST
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Three peers have been accused of agreeing to carry out Parliamentary work for payment in a scandal uncovered by reporters secretly filming Ulster Unionist Lord Laird, and Labour's Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate and Lord Cunningham.

Posing as representatives from a fake solar power company, reporters from the Sunday Times received assurances from the three peers that they would raise questions in parliament and attempt to recruit others to their cause in exchange for cash - a practice that goes against the House of Lords code of conduct.

The two Labour peers have been suspended from the party and Lord Laird has resigned the party whip pending an investigation.

These allegations follow last week's resignation of Tory whip MP Patrick Mercer after claims that he too had broken lobbying rules.

The changing behaviours of our politicians

Ironically, before the 2010 election, future Prime Minister David Cameron said lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen", presumably after the MP's expenses scandal of 2009 when members of Parliament were accused and in some cases prosecuted for widespread actual and alleged misuse of the permitted allowances and expenses.

As expected, there has been public outrage at the 'cash-for-questions' scandal with many again losing confidence in the British political system and more significantly, those elected to represent the best interests of the masses as opposed to the interests of the individual.

Many believe the motivations of today's political class - a community made up of fiercely partisan political operatives entrenched in the ways of Westminster - are focused more on reaching the heights of political ambition and using their position for financial gain rather than the longer-established tradition of serving the people.

These so called 'career politicians,' who establish themselves as policy specialists and experts on specific fields of public administration, rarely experience work outside of Westminster's political village and focus heavily on the national political scene as opposed to being rooted in local communities.

These politicians, who generally graduate from elite institutions and enter the political arena through serving as an apprentice at a think tank or an MP's office, lack what some people call 'real-world' experience as they've taken a professional route to political success rather than rack up experience at the local level before turning their hand to national politics.

Politics Inc

So why are the behaviours of career politicians affecting three peers who did in fact experience politics at a local level and embark on successful careers in both the private and public sector?

"Getting involved in politics has become a marginal activity, with one estimate placing the number of people seriously involved in political activism in the UK at only 100,000."

Peter Allen, a doctoral researcher and sessional lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, has spent years studying the effects of professionalisation on political representation.

"When a broader decline in participation is combined with this withdrawal, it is inevitable that activism will professionalise for that small minority who start early and stay involved in politics."

The full-time professional politician is a relatively new phenomenon in British life. In 1950, when a Labour government was battling for re-election, an Oxford academic named Herbert Nicholas carried out a detailed survey of the professional backgrounds of the Conservative and Labour candidates, and could find only what he called an "irreducible minimum" of fewer than 30 out of more than 1,200 "whose entire life had been so soaked in politics that no other label would have meaning for them," including Winston Churchill and Herbert Morrison, grandfather of the current Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson.

In 2010, a similar survey found that more than a quarter of all the candidates chosen by Britain's political parties to fight the general election had no experience of any career other than politics.

As Peter Allen's research suggests, our political leaders - regardless of party - seem to be opting for a government built on policy-makers and legislators who are professionals, paid out of the public purse but not, in my opinion, representative of the taxpayer.

Knowledge of Westminster and public opinion can help ministers to tailor policies that are workable and amenable but it seems that political experience has not prevented an endless series of u-turns, scandals and gross mismanagement from a coalition spearheaded by two career politicians.

Instead, Lord Laird and the like seem to be part of a disruptive political movement built on opportunism, who clearly identify their positions and the power they yield as perks within their employment packages.

For many, the clear incentive for a career in politics would be to serve the best interests of your constituents and through your successes, reap the inevitable rewards. Instead, these individuals are using these democratic platforms to serve their own purposes as opposed to

It's an institutional problem that's again poisoned an already rotting political system.

So what can be done?

Nick Clegg said recently in an interview there is "no single, magical protection against an individual politician determined to behave unethically or inappropriately."

I disagree Mr Clegg. Firstly, you can make it a criminal offence to accept payments for lobbying and after being prosecuted, ban those who partake in such activities from participating in any political process.

Secondly, to counter the growing number of career politicians, government must ensure that Cabinet is made up of both career and real-world politicians. A government made up entirely of career politicians will of course tend towards a more abstract style of policy-making, and may even be 'out of touch', but the complete absence of any career politicians would foster amateurism.

Lastly, political reform of this type will in all likelihood take while. If, however, unlike David Cameron, you predicted this scandal several months but want to act on it, write to him today to join calls for him to finally take action!

http://action.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/david-cameron