Democracy and Money
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in The Nation on 04 February 2012 .
The corrupting effect of money on politics has been witnessed in many democracies. In the UK, it was cash for questions, cash for influence, cash for honours and cash for peerages followed by the unsavoury spectacle of MPs fiddling their expenses.
In October 1994, The Guardian alleged that lobbyist Ian Greer had bribed MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of Harrods owner Mohammed Al -Fayed at GBP2,000 per question. There had previously been allegations against another two Conservative MPs, Graham Riddick and David Redinnick. The Downey report on the Hamilton affair also condemned conservative MPs Michael Brown, Sir Michael Grylls, Sir Andrew Bowden and Sir Peter Hordern.
Peerages and party funding
In the UK, bribery and corruption is not limited to the Conservative Party. New Labour came up with the spiffing wheeze of offering peerages to those who donated to party funds. In March 2006, several nominations for life peerages by Tony Blair were rejected by the Appointments Commission. They had lent, at the suggestion of Lord Levy (Blair’s tennis partner, a former pop impresario known as “Lord Cashpoint” – manager of luminaries such as Alvin Stardust and Bad Manners), large sums of money to the Labour Party. There was a long and involved police investigation during which many MPs, including Blair (three times), were questioned. Levy was arrested. The Labour Party acknowledged that it had taken loans worth $24.5 million from individuals, more than three times what it had previously reported. It did not say who had made the loans, which accounted for most of the $31 million Labour said it had spent on the May 2005 elections. The case was eventually dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service but the Labour Party’s funds were disastrously hit by returning the loans and Blair’s own reputation was further undermined.
Also questioned by police was Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt. Hewitt was also one of the MPs named in the 2010 sting into political lobbying by Channel 4. Hewitt appeared to claim that she was paid £3,000 a day to help a client obtain a key seat on a Government advisory group.
While in charge of the health service, Hewitt pushed ‘reforms’ to privatise it. In January 2008, it was announced that Hewitt had been appointed ‘special consultant’ to the world’s largest pharmacists, Boots. Hewitt also became a ‘special adviser’ to Cinven, a private equity which owns 37 private hospitals. Her predecessor, Alan Milburn, (he once ran a small radical bookshop in Newcastle called Days of Hope – known locally as Haze of Dope), has joined Beckham, Britney and Beyonce as a well-paid advisor to Pepsi-Co. Milburn also became an adviser to Bridgepoint Capital, a venture capital firm backing private health companies in Britain and works 18 days a year advising Cinven. The revolving door between the government and civil service and such companies surely must qualify as corruption.
Not many UK citizens would vote for the privatisation of the NHS. That does not stop their elected representatives selling it off for a fast buck.
In the USA, no candidate can get elected without huge funding. This allows corporate interests to call the shots and to ensure ‘pork-barrelling’ and ‘earmarking’. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the human rights of ‘persons’ when it comes to campaign contributions.
In 2002, investigative journalist Greg Palast published a book called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. The book focuses on the 2000 US presidential election and provides great detail on the methods used to prevent many black voters from voting. Chapters are available in PDF on the internet. One of the most illuminating chapters is entitled The Bushes and the Billionaires who Love Them.
Palast writes: “The Fortunate Son rode right into the White House on a snorting porker stuffed with nearly half a billion dollars: My calculation of the suffocating plurality of cash from Corporate America (‘hard’ money, ‘soft’ money, ‘parallel’ spending and other forms of easy squeezy) that smothered Al Gore runs to $447 million. They called it an election but it looked more like an auction.”
In the 2012, US presidential election cycle alone, political action committees (PACs) and Super PACs have spent over $25 million so far. Move to Amend is a national coalition of people and organisations working to amend the US Constitution to explicitly state that a corporation is not a person with Constitutional rights and money is not equal to free speech.
The problem is compounded by globalisation. Classical liberal theory sees capitalism and democracy as independent systems with disparate goals. Democracy restricts economic processes only to protect basic rights and does not limit wealth. Capitalism creates a large, wage-dependent class lacking the political power of the wealthy. Unrestricted global capitalism has created multi-national, non-democratic bodies with the impunity to override the environmental or labour laws passed by sovereign legislatures.