This article was published in Tribune
29 May 2009
There are other parliaments in just as much of need of reform as Britain’s
You think the House of Commons is sleazy? Come to Athens. In the birthplace of democracy, the parliament has been suspended simply to protect corrupt Conservative politicians from facing justice. In an astonishing move, the right-wing New Democracy government currently presiding over the worst economic record the country has seen in decades, decided to shut down the legislature until after the European elections.
The reason is to stop votes taking place that would force conservative politicians having to defend themselves in a series of corruption cases. One involves alleged bribes to a minister who awarded ferry boat contracts to take tourists to the Aegean Islands.
Another more serious case involves the German firm Siemens, which is accused of paying £1 billion in bribes to politicians in Greece, Germany and other European Union countries, and to American officials in order to win public contracts.
Greece’s Conservative government has a one-seat majority. One of its MPs, a former minister, made clear that, if he had to face corruption charges, he would vote with the opposition and force an early general election. According to current opinion polls, Pasok, Labour’s sister party, would secure a majority. The ruling party used every parliamentary trick to stop the ex-minister having his parliamentary immunity lifted and going in front of a special court.
The leader of a small, nationalist and virulently anti-European Union party was said to have taken all his MPs’ voting papers and filled them in himself before returning them to his followers in sealed envelopes for them to hand in.
Despite a majority of just two to indict the ex-minister, there were not enough votes to secure the lifting of parliamentary immunity. However, faced with this close shave, the Greek conservatives decided to suspend parliament in the hope that, by the time it re-opens, other issues will be preoccupying the Greek people.
George Papandreou, the Pasok leader and president of the Socialist International, condemned this manoeuvre. But Pasok was not free from accusations of corruption in its era of dominance of Greek politics.
Compared to David Cameron using his House of Commons allowance to get his wisteria pruned or a Labour minister charging a £3.49 bottle of wine to expenses, the scale of corruption in Greece is far graver. So, too, is the Siemens case.
The German truck maker, MAN, is currently being investigated over allegations of paying £1 million in bribes to win orders. At least one senior left-wing German politician has been named in German newspapers in connection with this scandal.
Labour has paid a high price for the successive refusal of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to accept the recommendations of independent review bodies, which have set out what MPs should earn. For the sake of cheap headlines about getting tough with MPs’ pay, both Labour Prime Ministers stored up trouble for the whole political system. In the meantime, Labour turned a blind eye to professionals in the public sector – town hall executives, senior education and police officers, GPs and armies of executives employed in taxpayer-funded agencies – giving themselves massive awards in pay and allowances disconnected from any increase in frontline services.
As workers in the private sector lose their jobs and homes, and savings evaporate, many look with envy at the pay, pensions and job security in the managerial and executive strata of the public sector.
Labour has to listen to this anger. It is all too easy in the bunkers of Westminster and behind the windows of a ministerial car to feel that the world does not understand the problems of MPs and ministers. And the nauseating, holier-than-thou moralising from some Labour MPs parading their goody-two-shoes approach on Sky or in lucrative comment pieces for the Daily Mail does not help. But the failure to show contrition, in some cases to stand down from ministerial office, and reluctance to move fast to reform the system will do damage to Parliament in general and Labour in particular, as the governing party.
British politics under Labour is not as corrupt as Greek politics under conservatives. But time is fast running out to win back public trust.