by Anthony Painter
This morning’s announcement that Labour is going to seek OBR audit of its fiscal plans in 2015 is a smart one. Tactically, it deflects the sort of ‘black hole’ attack from the Conservatives that we have seen over the weekend. The Tories are terrified by this- hence their rejection of the idea. Has there been a more shoddy piece of work coming out of HM Treasury than its ‘analysis’ published over the weekend? Secondly, it will mean that Labour will have to be meticulous in the preparation of its plans. This may help rebuild trust in Labour’s ability to manage public finances.
And thirdly, crucially, it may help to restore some faith in politics. If that takes external audit then so be it.
There will be much scoffing at this point. In a Today programme interview this morning, Ed Balls was also asked about Damian McBride and his own role in the Gordon Brown political operation. These seems like separate issues. However, trust in fiscal policy, politics, competence, fairness are all connected. The question is how can trust be restored- not just in Labour but politics more widely.
Poor behaviour can have an institutional check. Whether it is over-spending, under-taxing, setting interest rates, regulating industry or the personal destruction of political rivals.
Now, I’m not proposing that we give the OBR responsibility for political conduct. However, the principles of monitoring and audit could apply. Instead of brushing the McBride revelations under the carpet and pretending it’s all in the past when we know that either it isn’t or has the potential to occur again, Labour could act decisively instead. It could establish mechanisms of monitoring and sanction.
Just as the banks, Parliament, the BBC, the police and the media more widely have been found short in their ethics in various ways over the last few years, the same is true of politics. Indeed, Richard Lambert has been asked to set an independent ethical conduct regulator for banks. Why not set up a similar mechanism for the Labour party?
In addition to seeking a more open type of party, the Collins’ Commission should be mandated to explore the establishment of a new ethical body, independent of the Labour party to hold anyone who is an elected office holder, works for an elected office holder, or is a party official to account against a new code of ethics. This is not about breaking the law; it’s about conduct and what we are willing to tolerate in modern politics. The ‘Political Conduct Panel’ would be in a position to monitor unethical behaviour and sanction it where necessary. It would certainly be interested in practices such as briefing against colleagues and spreading of false rumour.
The Conservative party has its own issues too and it should set up a similar body but Miliband is leader of the Labour party and that is where he can act.
The McBride years should be put behind us. Unfortunately, well meant words in the intensity of a media storm are not enough. There needs to be mechanisms to root out the corrupt, the corrosive and the malign. Resources are scarce in modern politics; trust is scarcer. Labour can add political conduct to fiscal conduct in a trust-building exercise. And remember, trust is a resource of greater value to the centre-left than right-wing governments. Labour’s wider values depend on it.
Anthony Painter is chairing the Labour Uncut sponsored Pragmatic Radicalism fringe this evening. He is author of recently published Left without a future? Social justice in anxious times (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Left-Without-Future-Justice-Anxious/dp/1780766610 )