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Penny ColeDemocracy to end corruption

Penny Cole's address to the Manchester Assembly for Democracy on 18 April

When you think about corruption in the UK, the phrase that springs instantly to mind is “Police Corruption”. So many scandals involving police forces.

The 2003 internal investigation Operation Tiberius, concluded the Metropolitan Police suffered “endemic police corruption” and that some of Britain’s most dangerous organised crime syndicates were able to infiltrate New Scotland Yard “at will”.

And since we are in Manchester, there was the revelation of co-called "cronyism" among top officers in GMP and other forces minding each others’ backs. “A failure to follow correct procedures or investigate complaints properly.” They were thwarting a whole number of investigations, including the Hillsborough Enquiry.

Taxation

What else is corrupt? Well I think we’re all agreed the taxation system is corrupt.
Operation Tiberius found corrupt individuals working with HMRC at home and overseas. But that’s small potatoes compared to the £25.5bn uncollected from 2,700 companies.

Of course the absence of any financial restraints means companies can move money around the world to avoid paying any tax.

But even when they are assessed as owing some tax, multinational corporations make sweetheart deals with HMRC.

Vodafone owed something like £6bn in 2011, but only paid £1.25bn. Goldman Sachs were let off payments of between £8m and £20m. It’s incredible that we’re not allowed to know the exact figure. Apparently, that’s what you get for taking a tax official to lunch. I bet it wouldn’t work for any of us!

Energy supplies

Other kinds of corruption – well there’s the corruption at the heart of our energy supplies, where we are consistently charged usurious rates so that big profits can be sustained. And in fact a whistleblower recently revealed that the wholesale gas price was being illegally fixed.

Local government

Corruption in local government: We know all about that in Glasgow – land deals connected with the Commonwealth Games development where a piece of land was sold cheap then repurchased by the Council making a huge profit for a developer who had friends in high places.

Empty city-owned properties – often buildings of real architectural importance – mysteriously catch fire and then the Council sells off the land. The local joke is that signs outside should say: To Let. May Sell. May Burn To the Ground.

The media

What about the media? The corruption of all the newspapers – the phone hacking scandal, the bribing of police and public officials to get information. You wouldn’t mind if it was for a real investigative story – but it’s for the most obscene trivia.

Then there’s the state broadcasting company. The BBC’s blatant bias during the Scotland referendum got people so wild there were big demonstrations outside their Scottish HQ.

Reminds one of that old rhyme:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
(thank God!) the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to.

Politicians & Civil Servants

There are of course the subtle bribes for senior civil servants and politicians – a seat on the board after a lifetime smoothing the path. And politicians taking money for influence. Of course we had the expenses scandal too.

Fracking

In Scotland and here in the North West the drive to get the Fracking industry underway has underlined the deeply corrupt connections between business and state.

government is increasingly indistinguishable from the fracking industry

A leaked letter from George Osborne’s says civil servants must act to “respond to the asks from Cuadrilla”, the company intending to frack in Lancashire. The “asks” include contacting the Health and Safety Executive and Lancashire county council about planning applications, and the Ministry of Defence over granting Cuadrilla trucks access to military land. The chancellor writes: “I expect to see rapid progress”.

As Green MP Caroline Lucas put it: “The government is increasingly indistinguishable from the fracking industry it’s supposed to regulate."

The Scottish government’s expert advisory group on unconventional gas is mostly made up of academics funded by fossil fuel companies including one who is on the board of a coal-bed gasification firm.

The EU’s new fracking advisory network includes Cuadrilla, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Total, ExxonMobil, and GDF Suez. Over 70% represent or have financial links to the fracking industry, while fewer than 10% represent civil society.  The chairs of the working groups either work for the fracking industry, are from pro-fracking governments or fracking industry-friendly bodies.

Friends of the Earth were so disgusted they walked out .

The dirty pool and the scum on top

Examples show a combination of opportunistic and systemic corruption.

Some are the grubby little fingers in the till. Others are just “the way the system works”.

Some are illegal, and there’s a chance you might get the perpetrators in the dock – though not a big chance.

Others are simply the form taken by our society, which is is built on a system that demands the domination of the majority by a ruthless elite hell bent on growth and profit at any price. The one gives birth to the other.

Capitalist economy and the corporatocracy

The Libor scandal, where bank employees were fixing the interest rate, following on from so many other banking scandals – is dwarfed by the biggest scandal of all, the crashing of the world economy through the reckless expansion of credit.

Of course, our governments had to bail out the banks because they were complicit in this credit expansion. The New Labour government’s entire policy was built on it.

And no significant controls have been imposed on the financial sector since the crash.
Governments know the show must go on because that expansion of credit was the only thing sustaining the capitalist system of commodity production. The focus has now shifted to China where debt-fuelled production has reached unimaginable levels, and when the wheels come off that enterprise ... well I’m getting on to a different area now but it is important to recall that we are talking not just about the UK but a global economic and political system.

From no say to democra-say

In the end that’s the real corruption – a political system which has no democratic oversight, which we don’t control at all and where real power is hidden behind a kind of theatrical performance of democracy.

What can we feel but disgust and shame at the phony war between tweedle-Dave and tweedle-Ed. We know they all stand for the same thing, in the end – the continuation of business as usual. Austerity and cuts for us – big bucks for them.

People increasingly have a kind of horror at the whole process. They are desperate for an alternative, as we saw in the Scottish referendum. Public meetings with 1000 people turning up. Generally low turnout in working class areas like Glasgow and Dundee; people queing round the polling stations in places like Fintry and Easterhouse to cast their vote. Why? Because it seemed something fundamental could change – not just a shuffling of parties.

Seeing the anti-independence parties all lined up together to defend the Great British Union of austerity and inequality, really drove the message home in Scotland, and I think in the rest of the UK too.

The result is that there is a window of opportunity for us to start working on a plan to mobilise that disgust, and turn it into a positive for our communities, cities, regions and countries.

That’s why Assemblies are so important, because they can become democratic spaces for planning and developing a movement to bring about a transition to a very different system. As the Glasgow People’s Assemblies 2013 statement put it “from no say to democra-say”.

The only thing we need to agree on is the need to transcend a form of governance that is entirely undemocratic, and where only corporations, financiers and landowners have any real clout.  Apart from that we can hold many diverse views and ideas about the present and future.

Those who are getting involved are focused on asset sharing, gift economies, environment sustainability, and campaigning against all kinds of injustice and environmental damage. Mostly they work in the sectors that are the opposite to the elite. Together we represent the living side of our society, not the dead side, and it is that living side that we need to set free to flourish.

Shift of power

The reality is that we can’t just find some trick to sever the links between the state and corporations. As Caroline Lucas so rightly said, it is impossible to distinguish between them. They have merged into what some have called a corporatocracy.

So what we need is a shift of power to a democratic, rights-based form of governance. The right of the people to come together in assemblies to decide what happens in their communities and regions – and a new form of participative governance and law to put those decisions into practice.

And at the business/production/economy end of the relationship, the right of workers to convert shareholding ownership into co-operative ownership.

That, I would argue, is the winning combination for people and planet.

Penny Cole is the environment editor for A World to Win and co-organiser of the Glasgow Assembly for Democracy

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