The spectacle of former Cabinet ministers Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon peddling their services to a fictional US company for rates of between £3,000 and £5,000 per day has brought Parliament into even greater disrepute – if that is indeed possible.
Last year’s expenses’ scandal revealed that this unlimited greed in the corridors of power is not confined to a few individuals. In the wake of the Channel 4 exposé of the former Blairite ministers, a BBC investigation found that 20 MPs had failed to declare free overseas trips on more than 400 occasions. Andrew Dismore, who is actually on the committee that is supposed to oversee the behaviour of MPs, breached the rules no fewer than 90 times.
But looking at the global picture, Britain’s parliament is not unique when it comes to evidence of abuse of power and trust. The crisis in the Catholic church has forced even God’s Rottweiler, Pope Benedict XVI, to apologise for priests who sexually abused children in Ireland.
One experienced Vatican watcher comments that “during four decades of reporting from the Vatican, I have never seen a graver crisis affecting the very credibility of the leadership of the world's longest surviving international organisation, the Roman Catholic Church”.
And, in the United States, Nation editor Christopher Hayes, writing in Time magazine, uses the phrase “twilight of the elites” in his depiction of the corruption and incompetence of “nearly every pillar institution in American society whether it’s General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media”.
In what he calls “the implosion of nearly all sources of American authority”, trust in Congress has dropped to only 12% of people expressing confidence in it in the last Gallup poll. Naturally Hayes does not describe this failure as a crisis of the capitalist system. Instead he blames the elites themselves – “the people who run the institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order”.
But in reality, a widespread feeling of malaise and distrust has become a truly international phenomenon in response to what is being revealed as the internal corrosion of the capitalist system and its institutions.
The Conservative party is now moving in to seize the ground opened up by New Labour’s promotion of bleak corporate power with talk of local democracy, parent-run schools and community-run local shops. On Saturday we had nothing less than the sight of former Thatcherite Michael Portillo’s television programme called “power to the people”, where he asked how politics could “engage” with local people.
Thus New Labour’s authoritarian state has opened the door for equally reactionary populists of the Right. They do this under the cover of encouraging “people’s power”. Naturally, the Tories’ strategies will lead to nothing of the kind, but they reveal yet again the hollowing out and implosion of the political system.
A hung parliament and possible national government could see authoritarians of the far right seizing their chance, posing as cleaners-up of corruption. Something along these lines facilitated Berlusconi’s rise to power in Italy.
It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the political fall-out of this widespread awareness - on a multitude of levels - that the existing state institutions are corrupt and unfit for purpose.
The notion that we should prop up this collapsing structure by casting a vote for existing parties at the general election is thus revealed not as an exercise in democracy but a futile effort to preserve the status quo at any expense. The crisis of the institutions and their leaders opens up an unprecedented opportunity to advance new and truly democratic alternatives.
A World to Win secretary