Should MPs dress like racing drivers?

Lewis HamiltonElected representatives should "wear the logos of all the banks, investment banks, insurance companies and real estate firms they're taking money from", just as racing drivers such as Lewis Hamilton (left) wear the logos of their sponsors on their working clothes. That's the view of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman, who floats the idea "borrowed from the blogosphere" in an attack on political donations.
Writing in the paper this weekend, Friedman calls today's US Congress "a forum for legalised bribery". He quotes figures from transparency group Open Secrets which calculate that the financial services industry in the US spent $2.3bn on federal campaign contributions between 1990 and 2010.

That figure was more than the contributions made by the health, energy, defence, agriculture and transport industries combined. Friedman says: "Our financial industry has grown so large and rich it has corrupted our real institutions through political donations."

Capitol Hill

He also quotes Senator Richard Durbin, who said in 2009 that financial firms were the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. "Frankly," he said, 'they own the place." Friedman asks why there are 61 members of the House Committee on Financial Services. "So many Congressmen want to be in a position to sell votes to Wall Street," he observes.

In the UK, the lobbying industry is estimated to be worth about £2bn a year. Full Fact, a website dedicated to promoting accuracy in public debate, quotes analysis of UK parliamentary passes issued to staff that shows 250 individuals have paid roles with third party interest groups.

Groups such as EURIM, which describes itself as "the information society alliance", charge corporations £4,000 a year membership, for which those corporations get "genuine opportunities to influence policy" and "excellent networking opportunities with policy makers".

Transparency

Tamasin Cave from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT) says: "The problem of undue influence in politics is only increasing. Lobbying is much more pervasive in the UK than is generally recognised.... yet the public – and Parliamentarians – have no idea who is lobbying whom about what."

The ALT wants a mandatory register to show who is lobbying, what they are lobbying for and how much is being spent. It wants a public record of all meetings between elected officials and lobbyists. And it wants enforceable ethical rules and curbs on benefits in kind and in the form of gifts.

In 2009, an attempt to introduce in the UK the kind of minimal disclosure laws currently in force in the US via a register of lobbyists was rejected in favour of self-regulation by the lobbying industry. That register has hardly curbed the influence of the lobbyists in the US. But in the UK, we're not even allowed to know what that influence is.

Corporate takeover

As New Internationalist magazine observed when it looked at the subject, "The corporate takeover of democracy is not just a paranoid nightmare of conspiracy theorists." There are encouraging signs that more and more people, in fact, are calling for action on this issue.

Friedman himself is no radical anti-capitalist. He says: "Capitalism and free markets are the best engines for generating growth and relieving poverty - provided they are balanced with meaningful transparency, regulation and oversight. We lost that balance in the last decade. If we don't get it back - and there is now a tidal wave of money resisting that - we will have another crisis."

He acknowledges the effect movements such as Occupy Wall Street have had in articulating a more widespread disquiet about the way the system is operating – bringing together reformers and more radical elements in a growing chorus to reclaim democracy for the people.

In the UK there signs that a mainstream media which has for too long accepted the corporate line, at best, is beginning to engage with the issues. The Occupy LSX protest is beginning to focus on the undemocratic influence of the City of London and there are signs that the shadows are shortening for those who seek to exercise power without accountability.
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