HOW do we end up with the politicians we get? Yes, we elect them, but after that a good few of them seem to turn out the same no matter which party they started with. Sleaze, underhand deals, snouts in the trough: it’s almost as if they have had an alien brain transplant. How do those bad eggs get to that state having started out with principles, a moral compass, a sense of duty?
County elections are odd experiences for those who put themselves up for rejection or acceptance, often with no idea which it is to be – local election forecasting is chancy at best. There are rewards for the candidates at the beginning: when the local chairman decides that they are just what the party needs there is the warm glow of pride, and even in this Covid year the campaign is fun – no face-to-face meetings with the electorate (some might think this a bonus) but still the feeling that getting the message across is possible with computers and phone messages and interviews with the teenage freesheet reporter. And now there is the bigger ego-boost for those who have found that the electorate agreed with the chairman: some of those dedicated, brave or simply curious representatives of the democratic urge are, to their delight or consternation, the chosen ones.
This latest election will have been the same as all the others in one respect: all over the country there are men and women suddenly aware of what they have let themselves in for. Most candidates will have had a fair idea, having tried before, but a considerable minority will be paper candidates thrown into the hopeless fray but unexpectedly victorious, finding that they now have the task of representing thousands of people and defending them from an organisation of which they know too little. How little do these paper candidates (or democracy candidates as they are also called) understand of their rewards, responsibilities and duties? Well, as an example: it came as a surprise to me that a county councillor receives a monthly allowance (not ‘pay’, please note, if it was pay they’d have to dish out the minimum wage and every council would go bankrupt), plus a mileage allowance and a free meal when away from home. Perhaps that fact, my total indifference to the money involved, saved me from making the worst mistake any politician can make: forgetting that it’s not your money, none of it is the council’s money, none of it is the government’s money, it is all money taken under threat from the people you represent. Or worse, it’s a bribe.
Soon our new representatives will find the answer to the question ‘what does a county councillor actually do?’ It’s ‘what do you want me to do?’
There has recently been a lot of fuss about politicians on the make, Wallpapergate being the most obvious, but there are other much worse examples of politicians taking money for old rope. Who in their right mind would pay a former PM thousands of pounds to give an after-dinner speech, or pay tens or hundreds of thousands for yet another of the unseen rough drafts of history that is a PM’s memoir, here today, remaindered tomorrow? What makes a politician who is reasonably well paid by most people’s standards think that it’s appropriate to accept freebies, promises of future advancement or advance payment for yet more reams of turgid and unreadable prose?
It’s because they are trained to do so.
I can best describe the process by detailing my own experience. Having become increasingly incensed by the manoeuvring of the Cameron government after it was elected on the promise of a referendum, I started digging around and found UKIP’s website. Nigel Farage himself was coming to Brandon. I went to see him and was impressed by the way he stuck to the point and told the truth, so I joined, volunteered as a paper candidate and, after two recounts, found myself representing a couple of the most challenged estates in Suffolk which mingled with some of the smart bits in a gutsy little town an hour’s drive from home. As I drove around the 60s London overspill estates I realised what a huge responsibility it was.
The county council ran an induction process in the style of any big organisation, and we eight newbies met the previous sole representative of our party in Suffolk. Big Bill was pleased to see us, he’d been ploughing a lonely furrow for four years with every other councillor against him. Cue excitement, cups of tea, plans. And then along came the first freebie.
Our MEPs were part of a bigger EU grouping which had funds for PR, a very EU idea, so we were invited, courtesy of taxpayers from Ireland to Bulgaria on a visit to Brussels to meet our MEPs and have a series of briefings from the heart of the beast. A little alarm bell rang in my conscience. It was not my money, not the EU’s money, it was money from some of the poorest states in Europe: at that time about 25 per cent of Romania’s population was living on less than $5 a day. How could I justify taking a freebie in those circumstances? So I said I’d like to go, but I’d pay my own way, food, transport, booze, the lot. I’m as weak as the next man, more than happy to guzzle at the trough, but I didn’t like the giver, I didn’t want to feel grateful to that monster in Brussels. So I opened the chequebook, who do I pay?
Computer says no. It was literally impossible to do the tour, briefings, booze-up etc without taking the money that was allotted by our masters in Brussels. It would have been easy just to shrug and go, but the whole affair was making me angry. How dare they force me to take their money! So I worked out how much the visit would cost – fares, accommodation, food – and sent a cheque to a charity for that amount. Hah, that’ll show ‘em.
Why did I take a stand? Not because of any particular virtue, quite the reverse: I knew that once I started to take I wouldn’t be able to stop – better to close my eyes to the possibility of the trough right from the start, even the smallest mouthful. Well, almost. Meals in the council offices fair enough, that was paid for from the daily meals allowance, but I plead guilty to taking the free lunch on the days there was a full meeting of the council: I justified it to myself by the fact that it was a stand-up buffet with the chance to mingle and interact with the decent councillors from the other parties, and anyway there were deep fried prawns and the temptation was too much. When they changed the format to a sit-down lunch I stopped going – not my money, not the council’s money, money from my people on my estates to whom a fiver a week extra would make a tangible difference. It wasn’t for the mingling with fellow councillors at all, it was just a freebie. Another bit of the training resisted.
We saw a perfect example of how it can end up when the entire council cabinet went away on a training day to learn about public relations and dealing with the media. The council offices had briefing rooms galore, there was every facility they needed in-house and all they needed to pay for was the lecturer’s travel. So they held it at Pinewood Studios. At £400 a head from their training budget. As the twig is bent . . . They just accepted it as normal. It wasn’t illegal, it wasn’t evidence of corruption, it wasn’t even a major issue, it was accepted as routine. But it was wrong.
I’ve covered elsewhere the County Council Network Conference, the mingling of over 200 councillors and council officers from all over the country in a four-star hotel where the final night’s dinner came with a bottle of wine each. The next day the leader of the organising council asked what we thought of it. I told him. Then I went home and got out the chequebook again – that one hurt.
After four years I came away with a clear conscience as did most of those I met and worked with or against. However, there were some who committed no crimes, did nothing against the rules, but after their four years had become used to the freebies, the schmoozing, to spending other people’s money on themselves. That’s how it starts. For those who go on to higher things it can escalate to claiming a £400 home cinema system on parliamentary expenses (SNP), with getting the absolutely top range ear buds (Labour), with golden wallpaper (Con). It ends with directorships, with chairmanships of fact-finding missions round the world, with ten thousand pounds for 40-minute after dinner speeches, with limos and millions and the loss of integrity. It’s all about being trained from the moment that we take the first freebie.
As the twig is bent the tree inclines*. And I do mean ‘bent’.
I resisted. It wasn’t easy but I resisted. However, I would like several dozen deep-fried prawns to be taken into consideration. There are limits.
*Variously attributed to Virgil or Alexander Pope.