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06 April 1997

General Election: The Sleaze Fallout

The election campaign proper is a week old but political debate has remained at the 'sterile' setting. David Nolan looks at how New Labour, under the guise of cleaning up politics, are creating a new, less democratic, consensus

The first week of the UK general election campaign has illustrated clearly that sleaze and other non-issues will remain at the centre of the political discussion. Despite the fact that all three of the major parties published their manifestos last week (and a new party aimed at ethnic minorities was launched, unimaginatively called the Fourth Party) the rather petty and sad wranglings over back-handers and cash for questions have continued to dominate the headlines. Conservative leader John Major has angrily accused one radio interviewer of 'hijacking' an interview after he was pestered about the allegations. One perceptive commentator in the Times suggested that the constant focus on corruption was damaging to all concerned. Indeed it is, because it starts a spiral out of which will be difficult to break.

Despite the column inches and banner headlines devoted to the issue, it is obvious that public perceptions of the extent of 'sleaze' and corruption far outstrip the reality. It is certainly true that Italian politicians, to whom many have compared the Tories, would not get out of bed for the sums we are led to believe changed hands. The constant narrow-minded carping and publication of details of petty corruption has only served to increase the disillusion most feel with the political process. Whatever the extent of the allegations, the only likely result is that there will be increased public disaffection with politics in general and politicians in particular. Political life will appear to be less and less relevant to those on the outside with dire consequences for us all.

New Labour's focus on these allegations has forced them to propose some solutions. These will serve in the main to increase the extent of state intervention into all aspects of daily life. One of the first proposals has been that all donations to political parties should be visible to all - and that the finances of all political parties become publicly accountable. This will have far-reaching consequences for those political entities which dare challenge the status quo - the state will now have full access to all of their activities.

New Labour have promised to rid British politics of allegations of sleaze. They have promised to expose the scale of dishonesty and free politics of corruption - through quangos and other extra-parliamentary commissions. Through the creation of investigative bodies such as the Nolan Commission to purge government they will create a less accountable and less democratic form of government - where those who have been elected to do a job are accountable not to the electorate but to faceless (and themselves unaccountable) bodies. The likely result is that politics will become the preserve of a smaller and smaller group of people and be reconstituted on a narrower basis with less public input and less obligation to those whom they are supposed to represent. This in itself represents a worrying trend for those who have an interest in widening public involvement in politics and demanding more accountability from those who represent us.

LM is sponsoring a post-election conference at City University in London on 10 May which will examine what life will be like under New Labour. Further details will be mailed out soon.

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