Our current political system cannot bring about the change we need

Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, and chair of the cross-party group on international corporate responsibility, on why the political system needs to change.

By Lisa Nandy MP (Labour, Wigan)

As the News International crisis continues to unfold, the political system has suddenly discovered what campaigners have been telling us for years: that multi-national corporations sometimes behave with breathtaking irresponsibility.

The difficulty of holding those at the top of business to account, even when such behaviour is systemic throughout the organisation, has been dramatically illustrated in the last few days with the appearance of James and Rupert Murdoch before the culture, media and sport select committee.

It is certainly not news that large multinational companies operate beyond national boundaries – and in reality beyond national laws – without adequate frameworks to hold them to account, even when they violate the most basic human rights.

In the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, financial crisis and now phone hacking, I am becoming increasingly convinced that we, as politicians, have a problem that simply cannot be solved within our existing political system. The implication of politicians and police in a scandal that has rocked the world’s second largest media organisation is proof that change, if it comes, will have to come from outside.

It is increasingly clear the political system, as it stands, is not capable of bringing about the wholesale transformation that is needed.

As chair of a cross-party group on international corporate responsibility, I have been appalled but not surprised by the revelations over recent weeks.

Over the past year I have seen businesses put profits before people across the world, or turn a blind eye to actions in which they were complicit, with devastating consequences for human rights and the environment. Yet conversely I have met CEOs who desperately want to ensure their supply chains are as ethical as possible but are unsure how to achieve it.

The challenges and difficulties in this should not be underestimated; global, complex supply chains present an almost infinite number of risks. It may not be possible to mitigate against these entirely but surely it must be right that, where parent companies and corporate directors do have leverage, they should be held responsible for wrongdoing that occurs on their watch.

The UN is thankfully taking action. Last month, the UN Human Rights Council voted unanimously to introduce, for the first time, a set of guiding principles on business and human rights. These centred on three pillars: the corporate duty to respect, the state duty to protect and access to remedy once human rights abuses have occurred. These could not be more important, or more relevant.

All three pillars apply to the News International scandal; if the first two had been upheld, we would not be in the situation we are in today.

Ed Miliband has referred to this as evidence of the “irresponsibility of the powerful” but has rightly recognised the failure of all major political parties to act. Four years after a News of the World employee was criminally convicted for intercepting phone messages and a full eight years after the (then) editor of the paper admitted she had bribed police officers for information, it is unbelievable action has only just been taken.

Change must come – not just to News International, but to all multinationals, to ensure they are as transparent and accountable as individuals and governments. Without fresh conviction we cannot make progress. I have been gratified by Ed Miliband’s leadership in speaking out so strongly against News International.

As politicians, we have a duty to define, not just seek, the so called ‘centre’ of politics and on this issue he has given voice to genuine public outrage.

This could be a significant break with the past. For decades, politicians have tried to seek out, not define the centre ground, ironically often pandering to opinion defined by the Murdoch press. Since I have been in Parliament I have become more convinced than ever that this centre-seeking approach alienates millions of people and denies them a voice.

As Steve Richards of the Independent has convincingly argued, the current crisis represents an enormous opportunity for our leaders:

“Those that can break free from their past will be the dominant forces in British politics for the next decade at least.”

The election of Ed Miliband was a step in the right direction and I hope he will seize the chance to push for systemic change. But the change that is needed in the Labour party, the political system and across wider society has to be bigger than just one man. I do not think it will come from the inside, although there are many of us who would like to see it.

It has to come from party members, trade unionists, community activists and wider civil society. In the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the banking crisis and the phone hacking drama that is currently unfolding, it is clear to all of us that change has to come, but if we do not start to demand it, I am certain things will not get better.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.