Friday, 12 November 2021

Gissa Job

It looks like the Labour leadership have decided to go all in on Tory sleaze, with a particular focus on second jobs where the incidence biases heavily towards the government benches. That relatively few Labour MPs have part-time second jobs or directorships, even accounting for their being in opposition and therefore remote from the levers of power, is less the product of their ethical integrity and more a consequence of their career paths through trade unions, local government and the third sector. It would obviously cause a conniption in the media if a Labour MP were to remain a senior officer in a trade union: we'd never hear the end of claims of divided loyalties and bias despite the party ostensibly being the parliamentary representation of the labour movement. In fact, this scenario is unlikely because the unions have always wanted to maintain a clear space between themselves and the PLP, for fear of the latter colonising and controlling them. Likewise, there is a determination on the part of local government and charities to assert their independence from central government, hence the unease when politicians attempt to combine the roles of MP and elected mayor.

The asymmetry in second jobs between Conservative and Labour MPs reflects the fundamental class interests of the two parties. For all the efforts of the PLP's neoliberals to align more closely with British business and the City, notably New Labour's "prawn cocktail offensive" of the mid-90s, the party remains wedded to organised labour and its embrace by capital strictly contingent. In contrast, there has been no doubt about the Conservative Party's total identification with the interests of capital ever since the collapse of the Liberal Party after World War One, Boris Johnson's "fuck business" notwithstanding. In addition, the two parties tend to occupy contrasting roles relative to the opportunities of the state apparatus: mainly facilitators of rent-seeking through privatisation and government contracts in the case of the Tories and significant beneficiaries of public sector sinecures in the case of Labour. Where the interests of the two parties' elected personnel overlap is in the rentier interests of landlords, which reflects the bourgeois nature of the political class.

The issue of MPs having second jobs is being framed in terms of greed, but this is misleading. Not only do the sums pale in comparison to the wealth accumulated by some MPs before entering Parliament (consider the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak), or what they can earn after leaving Westminster (see former Prime Ministers), it is clear that many MPs are as motivated by the gratification of their egos as by the reinforcement of their bank balances. Owen Paterson's behaviour was egregious precisely because he had reduced it to the purely transactional. As the Committee on Standards put it, "No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests". In other words, the problem was not second jobs per se but Paterson's divided loyalties: working for a company whose interests might be in conflict with those of his constituents and the wider electorate. His censure is as much about this breach of etiquette as any suspicion of actual corruption (no one is suggesting criminal charges, after all).

Some commentators have pointed out that being a minister is strictly speaking a second job, as if the issue were simply a claim on MPs' time, but this ignores that in an elevated role they are still (notionally) serving their constituents and the wider electorate. But what this point does highlight is that the claim MPs are hardworking is often exaggerated. If being a consituency MP were not merely a full-time job but one that ate up every waking hour, then either no one would be able to take on a ministerial role or such an appointment would inevitably mean the neglect of constituents. As cases such as Geoffrey Cox highlight, MPs don't even need to clock-on at Westminster. It's also worth emphasising that actual second jobs - i.e. formal employment - have to be disclosed, precisely so that such conflicts of interests can be identified and then avoided. Beyond disclosure, this largely relies on the self-policing of MPs. Paterson's offence - his "bad form" - was to blithely ignore these conflicts and thereby highlight the weakness of this self-restraint. 

The argument that MPs holding second jobs and directorships helps attract "talent" to Westminster is obviously self-serving, but it also has an ideological purpose in elevating business management above all other forms of non-political experience. According to David Gauke, "The role of non-executive director (NED), for example, requires similar skills to that of a minister – ensuring that an organisation is thinking strategically; asking searching questions of those with operational responsibility; assessing performance." As anyone who has had direct experience of NEDs will know, their understanding of a business is shallow and their presence is little more than a tribute that must be paid for a public listing. Most of the business scandals since the 1980s have featured negligence on the part of NEDs, perhaps most famously in the case of Northern Rock. Given that they are meant to bring outside expertise to bear on the oversight of a public company, it is chutzpah to suggest that a directorship is akin to work experience in making an MP a more rounded person.

The fundamental problem here is the assumption that being an MP is a job: that there is a first role with which a second could conflict. But MPs are elected representatives, which is quite another matter. In thinking that they can function as an MP while maintaining a non-parliamentary career, Tories are simply reflecting their traditional belief that political authority should be limited to a class defined by its wealth and privilege. In this milieu, being an MP is by definition a part-time role: an extension of that social position. The current debate has highlighted a division within the Parliamentary Conservative Party between long-established senior MPs, mostly sitting in safe seats in the South and West, and the newer intake of MPs who won previously Labour-held seats in the North and Midlands in 2019. The former tend to be wealthy, with extensive extra-parliamentary interests, while the latter tend to come from more modest backgrounds and may never have had a previous job that pays as well. It's not quite Grandees versus Agitators, but it shows that the sociology of the current Conservative Party is more varied than that of the opposition.

In contrast, it is Labour who have normalised the idea that being an MP is a job - indeed a career. This is due to a combination of factors: the practical necessity of paying MPs (from 1911 onwards), so that working-class representatives could be elected; the ideology of workerism and the PLP's identification with the "hard-working" elements of its base (consider the collected speeches of Rachel Reeves); and the gradual expansion of the state, which encouraged the idea that MPs were a species of public servant. The belief that MPs who still practise as doctors (rather than hospital porters) have unique insights into the NHS is trite and sentimental but it also reflects the belief that second roles in the public sector are intrinsically more acceptable and praiseworthy than those in the private sector. Geoffrey Cox would be receving fewer brickbats if his moonlighting was in criminal cases rather than commercial and tax affairs. Of course, this makes no practical sense. If a second job undermines the first, it doesn't matter whether an MP is a doctor or a cabbie. If the argument is purely one of a conflict of interest, then that is an implicit admission that the role of an MP is not full-time.

While "second jobs" are more painful for the Conservatives than Labour, both parties have a shared interest in keeping the focus on formal employment. The elephant in the room is disguised payments outside of this, such as speaker fees or paid newspaper columns, where there is no apparent conflict of interest but rather a shared sympathy. The bottom line is that MPs of all parties find it all too easy to either leverage their role for financial gain or to pay lip-service to their obligations to constituents (and local party members) in order to luxuriate in the regard of the media and the wider para-state of think-tanks, lobbyists and industry organisations. The revolving door between ex-MPs and this para-state is now notorious, to the point where we can talk about a wider system of financialised governance centred on a market in influence. In such an environment democratic accountability is considered little more than an inconvenience. Though the media has quizzed the constituents of Owen Paterson and Geoffrey Cox, this is very much a side-order to Westminster bubble talk about the possibility of a byelection upset and what this might mean for Boris Johnson's prospects. The electorate are called upon to provide a chorus, but they are not considered to be central players in the political drama. They only have the one job and it is decidely occasional.

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