Time for the left to reclaim the “transparency” debate

If you were to draw up a tag-cloud of common phrases that dominated the political blogs in 2009, as the year wore on, you would have seen the dominance of the word “liberty” giving way to an increasing concern with “transparency.” But the left should not allow this concept to be dominated by the right.

Between Heather Brooke and the Telegraph, we’ve also seen MPs being the butt of the demands for disclosure – often in excruciating detail. In both cases, the left have found themselves on the back foot in these discussions, allowing our perceived shortcomings to reflect badly on the Labour government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act in the first place.

Now, it seems that – as the election draws nearer – we’re allowing David Cameron to use a half-formed notion of “transparency” as the foundations for his “Post-Bureaucratic Age”. This concept (or #PBAge as it has inevitably been tagged) borrows the fluffy clothing of behavioural economics and webby goodness. But it’s an aggressively Thatcherite programme in drag. Demands for more “transparency” are at its heart. In yesterday’s speech, Cameron makes a range of laudable proposals about increasing the capacity of well-heeled and resourced pressure groups ordinary people to participate in the legislative process. He also refers to the Tory’s plan to make the tendering of public services more transparent.

The left should be looking to take this one step further:

• What about opening up the delivery of those contracts? Let’s see the private contractors exposed to every bit as much scrutiny as the public sector are, and then we can make a call on the question of whether private provision is actually more efficient or effective.

• Let’s see people who are suspected of tax-dodging being subjected to the same level of scrutiny as the considerably-cheaper-on-the-public-purse benefit cheats.

• And what about more transparency in the way that the more socially useless parts of the finance sector increase short-termism by the way that they speculate? What about more transparency for fund-managers? In this post by Tom Powdrill about the Kraft/Cadbury takeover, we see opaque fund-managers speculating against jobs to create a less valuable company. And what about exposing the estimated $390 million in fees on that bad Cadbury deal?

• When do politicians meet commercial pressure groups, and where do they get the research that they introduce into debates? Surely shareholders should know every penny that is spent on lobbying – what is being advocated and who is doing the advocacy? When do wealthy organisations provide cheap interns and secretarial services for MPs and public committees and what do they get back?

• When do newspapers carry stories that are favourable to their proprietors commercial interests? Surely journalists should source assertions that they make so we can see who is influencing public debate? Good journalism should be subject to a great deal more fact-checking than it is currently, and Left Foot Forward’s very own Andrew Regan has a good tool that could be adapted to this purpose.

So far, all of the demands for transparency have been placed upon either democratic institutions or public service broadcasters. That tells you everything you need to know about who is making the running in this debate so far.

Now, maybe it’s time they had a taste of their own dogfood?

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