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Saturday, 24 August 2013 00:00

Time to clean up the house

There's a classic exercise in diversion going on right now with the Tories trying desperately to sidestep accusations of corruption surrounding their own party.

It should not be forgotten that mainstream momentum for action on lobbying, against a backdrop of the ongoing Murdoch sleaze saga, gathered speed after Conservative co-treasurer Peter Cruddas was forced to resign last year over revelations that he had offered access to the PM and Chancellor for a quarter of a million.

Cruddas isn't the only politician caught in a press sting offering their behinds on a plate for journalists posing as businessmen willing to pay cash for lobbying.

Also in the frame in 2010 were a host of MPs such as Tory Sir John Butterfill and a Blairite rogue's gallery including ex-transport secretary Stephen Byers, ex-defence and health secretary Geoff Hoon and ex-health secretary Patricia Hewitt.

Coming from the faction that brought us Peter "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" Mandelson, now feathering his own nest in the ermine as Lord Mandelson, these Labour members' willingness to prostitute our democracy for their wallets should come as no surprise.

What does - or at least would, were this not David Cameron's kinky uber-right brigade - is how legitimate concerns over bribery and apparent corruption at the heart of our elected process have transmogrified into a full-spectrum assault on non-party political campaigning.

Only an idiot in a hurry would fail to see the difference between self-interested big businesses splashing cash for access to the political process and NGOs or democratic organisations such as unions campaigning openly on issues.

It seems that the Tories are just that, serving up the ominously titled Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill.

Westminster's currency among ordinary people is at a historic low following the expenses scandal, the PM's links to Murdoch sleaze, and repeated stings on dodgy elected politicians.

The unhealthy merry-go-round between corporations and Parliament is a massive part of this problem that has seen trust plummet and turnouts fall to match.

The fact is people want politicians to have principles, not appear to sell them to the highest bidder.

And when it comes to principles, whether people agree with them or not, trade unions and NGOs are among those institutions keeping the flag flying at a time when too much of party politics has descended into an opportunistic game of "chase the middle ground," whatever that means.

It's likely given the protests raised so far that the Bill will be amended to ensure that the ridiculous strictures on extraparliamentary campaigning anywhere near an election - any election - are trashed.

But what should not be lost in doing so is the need to tackle the stinking culture behind dodgy corporate lobbying for once and for all.

The key is transparency - absolute clarity on who is meeting who, when and for what reason, and criminal law to prevent cash bungs being deployed to grease the cogs.

Outrage at the Lobbying Bill in its current, awful form is warranted and should lead to serious amendments to the legislation.

But that should not divert attention from the core goal of ensuring that this opportunity creates an outcome that really is fit for purpose.

That means a Bill that helps clean up the shadowy culture of sleaze at Parliament's fringes which has been encouraged by those who are "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" instead of seeing our highest elected chamber's role as to draw up the best policies for the majority.

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