“The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labour.”
– Thomas Donahue
This week in British politics, the Conservative party has been embroiled in troubles and faced with difficult questions regarding the influence that large corporations and commercial interest groups have within the party and its core leadership. This arose when Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced plans to set a 30% tax rate for onshore shale gas production- breaks which have been dubbed by environmentalist opponents as “the most generous tax breaks in the world”.
It was later revealed that Lynton Crosby, the Conservative party’s chief election strategist and lobbyist, represents the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, an oil and gas lobby group campaigning aggressively for fracking. It was not long before criticisms were fired at the party claiming that they were acting on behalf of political and commercial interests rather than acting for the good of the British public at large.
Meanwhile, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband was equally faced with challenges last week. Following on from a parliamentary seat selection scandal in Falkirk, the Labour Party was once again forced to address the issue of their links with trade unions- in particular, Unite, the UK’s biggest union, responsible for approximately 25% of all donations to the party. Earlier this year, leaked documents revealed that Unite was running a covert campaign to ensure its candidates are selected to represent the Labour Party in the 2015 general election, posing questions over the way in which political influence is won in the UK.
Mr Miliband responded by proposing plans to require trade union members to opt in to donating to the Labour party, rather than being enrolled in donations automatically. This goes some distance in addressing the issue. However, these proposals, much like others which have been submitted by either party for years, fail to address the core question at the heart of this debate: how are elected representatives such as MPs supposed to balance constituents’ interests, political parties’ interests, and commercial interests?
Let us examine each of these interests in close detail. On an electoral level, it would seem obvious that an MP’s first role is to advocate the interests of their constituents, since it is to them whom they are accountable to every five years. It is constituents who have entrusted MPs with the crucial role, in a representative democracy, of allowing decisions to be made on their behalf. MPs should therefore be politically, electorally and, most importantly, morally accountable to the constituents in the first instance.
However, the question is not quite this simple. The role of the political party as a centralized institution is unquestionable in UK politics. In a strictly partisan system, as is in operation in parliament, the party identification is a strong and polarizing one. But without the endorsement- both electorally and financially- of a political party, the career prospects of an aspiring MP are limited to almost nothing. MPs are therefore also accountable to their parties, which supported them professionally and financially in their election campaigns, which allowed gave them the resources to climb the political ladder, and which will expect nothing but loyalty in return.
Finally, there are the commercial interests, which must be subtly weaved in with the afore mentioned, in a kind of intricate and volatile political balancing act. Often, representing commercial interests is seen as being synonymous with representing the party. The roots of the Labour Party can be traced back to trade unionists, and the Conservative Party is seen by many as the party of “the big businesses”. Furthermore, commercial interest groups or trade unions themselves are often democratic and representative vessels in their own right- much like political parties. Their electoral mandates, and the influence they ought to carry proportionately to this, complicate the issue even further.
Public reaction to the recent events regarding the roles of commercial interest groups and trade unions seems to indicate a widespread wish among the electorate that parties become more about representing “the people”. But how far can it really be held that interest groups and corporations should be excluded from this? Why should they deserve any less representation than anyone else? The question of divided loyalties and roles will always be a tricky question for anyone to answer in a pluralist democracy. How the main parties, and more crucially, the electorate, continue to respond to this, remains to be seen.