We need a programme of reforms to tackle sleaze in the UK political system

'People have become accustomed to seeing revelations about government contracts for cronies, honours for sale, minsters violating laws, and legislators enriching themselves by promoting the interests of their paymasters.'


Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labour member of the House of Lords, and Contributing Editor at Left Foot Forward.

The UK political system has never been pristine.  People have become accustomed to seeing revelations about government contracts for cronies, honours for sale, minsters violating laws, and legislators enriching themselves by promoting the interests of their paymasters.

The sleaze has disconnected governments from societal interests. The evidence is not hard to find. Just 250 people control wealth of £710.723bn, but 16.65 million people live in poverty. Real wages for workers are falling, but FTSE100 CEOs got a 23% pay rise and oil, gas, energy, banks and supermarkets are making record profits. Around 7.1 million people in England are waiting for a hospital appointment. Some 335,000 people have died from government imposed austerity. Last week, the government handed £18bn tax cuts to banks but could not find the money to ensure that 800,000 children did not go hungry.

There is an urgent need for political reforms to prioritise societal concerns over the interests of elites. The list is long, but a start can be made by freeing political parties from corporations and wealthy elites who fund political parties and legislators. The funders always get a return on their investment, though little is publicly known about the deals cut between political parties and their paymasters.

The House of Commons Register of Members Financial Interests shows that despite an annual salary of £84,144 plus allowances, too many MPs hold lucrative consultancies. These are effectively bribes in influence bazaars. The financial carrots help to prioritise the interests of corporations and the rich resulting in tax cuts for their class, lax regulation, poor laws and law enforcement, often at the expense of labour, consumers and ordinary people.

Consider the example of P&O Ferries which sacked 800 staff without any warning. Its chief executive told a parliamentary committee that the company knowingly violated employment law. The government declined to prosecute on the grounds that there was “no realistic prospect of a conviction”. Rather than introducing remedial legislation, the government has enacted the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 which enables employers to fire striking workers and replace them with agency staff.

In folklore, tax systems should be progressive, but in the UK, the poorest 10% of households pay 47.6% of their income in direct and indirect taxes, compared to 33.5% by the richest 10%. 

The electoral system devalues the votes cast by millions of people. The First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system gives huge parliamentary majority to a party securing 40%-42% of the votes cast. Without ever securing a mandate from a majority of the electorate, governments are able to push through laws with perfunctory scrutiny as MPs are under pressure to obey the party machine. Anyone straying faces the possibility of deselection and political exile. In recent years, the unelected House of Lords has frequently mounted greater scrutiny of legislation than the elected House of Commons.

The Prime Minister is not directly elected by the people but wields enormous power. In September 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was declared to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. Subsequently, the government pushed though the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022 which gives the Prime Minister the sole power to dissolve parliament without a vote. The Prime Minister also appoints members to the House of Lords. Following the Recall of MPs Act 2015, under certain circumstances, people can recall a MP and force a by-election, but they have no power to remove dysfunctional governments and force a general election.

Despite not addressing any of the political sleaze outlined above, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has outlined his plan to “restore trust in politics” by replacing the House of Lords with an elected “Senate of the Nations and the Regions”. This deserves public support, but there is also a need to answer some searching questions. For example, what weight would be attached to each nation and region? How would the same regional interests be represented in the Commons? If members of the Senate are to be elected by a system of proportional representation (PR) then why is Starmer opposing it for other elections?

The proposed Senate election will be dominated by well-resourced political parties and will squeeze out independents who are currently the second largest grouping in the House of Lords. How are independent voices to be protected? Indeed, within the Labour Party those holding radical views are being purged and this will inevitably weaken scrutiny, necessary for a functioning democracy.

The control of both Houses of Parliament by the same party would weaken scrutiny of the executive and would effectively create a dictatorship. What are the safeguards? What would happen when two elected chambers can’t agree on a Bill? Do we need a written constitution? What is the King’s role in new constitutional arrangements? These questions can be addressed but require attention to detail.

A proportional representation voting system and abolition of the House of Lords would probably require referendums and may distract a government from addressing deeper economic problems.

Merely tinkering with the House of Lords will not do. A broader programme of political reforms to curb sleaze is needed.

(Picture credit: Alan Cleaver: Creative Commons)

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