What’s the difference between bribing voters and fulfilling electoral promises to them? Outright bribery is now illegal but politicians still promise the earth and try to deliver. How else will they win re-election, after all. The Americans have a down to earth name for it: pork barrel politics. The Italians have an even better description: “clientilismo” – the dispensing of favours, money, jobs, projects to a party’s supporters largely for being a supporter, the public purse seen primarily as a source of largesse for those with access to it.
Let’s not be po-faced about this. Fulfilling promises to voters is not a bad thing. Rewarding those groups or areas of the country which vote for you need not necessarily result in the sort of corruption, poor administration and bad governance which has so plagued Italian politics. What matters is whether the criteria on which such decisions are made are clear, transparent, relevant to the issue, applied fairly and openly and subject to scrutiny and challenge – both Parliamentary and legal. Above all, decisions should not be blatantly and shamelessly party political. If there is party advantage this should be a happy by-product not the main or only purpose. Or so one would like to hope.
One of this government’s biggest promises has been its Levelling Up Agenda, part of which involves setting up a £3.6 billion Towns Fund – see here. It’s worth stating that all should want such an agenda to succeed. Too many areas have been neglected – either through complacency or indifference – or because existing investment criteria have put such areas at the back of the queue. The country has been overly reliant on the successes of a few sectors, a few high-performing cities. As explored in more depth by @AlastairMeeks here, “the economic underperformance of the core cities is among Britain’s most intractable problems”. Not just them. That underperformance spreads to surrounding areas. Opportunity and talent are wasted. Resentment and hopelessness flourish. Once a place is in decline, it can be very hard to reverse. Perhaps such places should be left to their fate. But people are often stubbornly attached to their homes, history and memories. They want improvement not exodus. So, setting all cynicism and party politics aside, the government’s expressed wish to spread opportunity to areas previously ignored is, if it is followed through and effective, a potentially exciting, hopeful development.
When the first list of towns was announced, 39 out of the 45 were in constituencies with a Tory MP. The latest update was a further £610 million for 26 towns, 22 of them represented by Tory MPs. Predictably enough, there were cries that the government had rigged the selection. It was a silly accusation to make – without evidence. If the Tory party is now getting its votes from poorer parts of the country and poverty is one of the relevant criteria, then it would hardly be a surprise to find such areas represented by Tory MPs. So long as the rules are clear and followed, this correlation is hardly evidence of Italian-style corruption.
Alas, the government’s behaviour does not help its own case. There is a mulish determination to ignore rules and conventions, as if the very idea of being constrained in some way is a sort of personal affront. It affects an air of injured innocence insulted at having its honour questioned, when asked to explain its decisions in Parliament. It tries to limit both Parliamentary scrutiny and legal challenge. When challenged, it is found to have acted unlawfully in the award of contracts. The idea that openness and transparency about how a decision is made are the best answers to to lawyers (or anyone else) querying the reasons for a decision seems not to occur to it. Or, if it does, it gives every impression it could not care less. The behaviour of Ministers sent out to trumpet its policies does little to reassure those concerned about the whiff of venality surrounding the government: Robert Jenrick is hardly ideally placed to dispel concerns.
And there is some evidence to justify these. The November 2020 Public Accounts Committee report on the New Towns Fund allocation set these out:
- Justifications given by Ministers for their choices were “vague”, “scant” and “based on sweeping assumptions”.
- The selection process was not “impartial”.
- There was no openness in the process and no reasons given for selection or exclusion.
- There was a “weak” and “unconvincing” reasoning given for not publishing any information about the process followed which did not vindicate its lack of transparency.
- The government misrepresented what the National Audit Office had written about its “robust” process. (It said no such thing.)
- How the money was to be spent, monitored and its success measured was unclear.
One of the MPs on that Committee was the late Dame Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham. The Chancellor recently wrote a letter to voters in the forthcoming by-election there stating that only a Tory MP could work with him to help the constituency. A statement of the obvious: that a Tory Chancellor would prefer to work with a Tory MP? Or an implied threat to ignore the constituency if it does not vote Tory? Perhaps the latter is overstating it. But when a government is so careless about the rules designed to ensure good incorruptible governance, it is not that surprising that some are unwilling to give it the benefit of the doubt. It is a pity: good governance, a clean administration, robust procedures to prevent public money being misused and misspent, clear rules which apply to all – not simply party supporters – matter, even if they are of little apparent concern to voters these days. They help a government ensure its policies have the best chance of succeeding. Why would any government ignore them?
There are two more lessons Italian politics can teach us:
- Parties can survive, thrive and win elections, even while breaking every rule of governance and legality. Voters will not care enough. But one day the political weather will change, voters will start caring mightily – they are allowed to be as hypocritical as they want – and what was seen as voter-pleasing politics (acceptable corruption, if you will) will be damned as bribery and graft and fraud and theft, with much tut-tutting and worse from all.
- That day could be a very long time coming.
 Declaration of interest: one of them is the town nearest to where I now live.