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Sunday, August 30, 2020

The failed product of right wing thinktanks?

Nick Cohen's article in the Observer is worth reading today, if only for the insight it provides into the way that Boris Johnson's government values ideological purity over competence, and acts accordingly.

Just as importantly, he explores the lessons to be found in Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale - which is already on my Christmas list - about how easily democracy is manipulated and why we need to reform regulation to restore level playing field.

Cohen looks at Tony Abbott, who is Boris Johnson's favoured choice as a UK trade envoy - a failed Australian politician who will be remembered, if at all, for believing climate change was “probably doing good” as his country burned, and being eviscerated for his sexist comments by Julia Gillard.

He says Abbott is a has-been from the other side of the world of whom we know little and care less. No one has voted for him in Britain and he negotiated no major trade deals in his error-strewn period as Australia’s prime minister, which ended in 2015, when his own party judged him to be worthless and brought him down.

He adds that Abbott is a product of the global network of right-wing thinktanks that has learned how easy and cheap it is to manipulate British politics arguing that Britain is the Poundshop of European politics, where money goes further. And with that he turns to malaise uncovered in Peter Geoghegan’s book:

Do you expect a government led by Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson to open up a system that gave them power? The unanswerable complaint against thinktanks is that they allow anonymous donors to influence policy without a semblance of accountability. And it’s a criticism you should never tire of making. Less noticed is how economical it is to buy access and promote your proteges. As the former Tory MP Guto Bebb told Geoghegan: “If you are willing to put quarter of a million into a thinktank you can get a lot of bang for your buck.” Indeed you can. The access to decision makers is dizzying. The British Medical Journal found that 32 MPs had direct or indirect links to the IEA. Tobacco, alcohol and food companies can pay a pittance in their terms – assuming we are ever allowed to know who finances the institute – and hear the IEA tell Tory politicians that essential public health protections are just “nanny state” meddling. So embedded in the Tory state are they that Matt Hancock announced his back-covering manoeuvre to scrap Public Health England at an “independent” Policy Exchange event. Then there is the equally dizzying level of access to the media. The IEA’s turnover is just £2.5m. In 2017, it boasted that the advertising value of media appearances was £66m – a 2,600% return.

A little money goes a long way in political London. After a mere £12,000 donation to the Tory party, the billionaire developer and former pornographer Richard Desmond saw Robert Jenrick unlawfully approve his property development in the East End of London two weeks later, which you might say is prompt service. For 50 grand, pretty much anyone can get a seat with a minister or prime minister at a Conservative Leader’s Group. And again the first question is, really, is that all?

The cheapness of influence-peddling fits a time when unregulated campaign groups can use small sums to target marginal seats on social media and disappear as soon as the election is over. There is a clear need for reform. The Electoral Commission should be expanded and given police powers. Political parties should have the same duty as banks and be held accountable for checking the sources of money they take. Thinktanks and all lobbyists should be required under pain of criminal punishment to declare who is funding them. As indeed should social media companies running political adverts.

Much of the media won’t help us clean up politics. Sky and the BBC are too compromised. They want extreme opinions, no matter how tainted or stupid, which will hold their fickle audiences’ attention. In return, they too often betray the duty of journalists to ask the IEA and Spiked on the right and Novara Media on the left hard questions about who they are representing and who is picking up the bill.

What started with the manipulation of the Brexit referendum has become a deeper malaise, threatening the very foundations of our democracy. It is surely time for reform and more effective regulation.
Whilst Milling is wanting to get rid of the Electoral Commission (cos it can expose the Leave corruption)others are getting worried in the Tory party of where they are going.Interesting times ahead
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