Does the name Angela Smith mean anything to you? Her name doesn’t exactly ring down the annals of political history like earlier politicians such as Cicero, Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. However, Angela Smith, the former Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, holds the key to understanding why, despite all the hot air and cross-party bloviating about corruption at Westminster this week, our MPs will never give up their second jobs.
Parliament and the lucrative private sector revolving door
MPs having a role in legislation affecting the work of private businesses while currently or subsequently working for them is described as the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon. Cosy and financially rewarding relationships of this kind raise serious questions about undue influence, self-interest and integrity. Smith is a prime example of how it works.
Smith was re-elected the Labour MP for Penistone and Stockbridge (previously known as Sheffield Hillsborough) in 2017, on a manifesto promising to nationalise the water industry. One of her parliamentary roles was as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for water. According to the campaigning organisation We Own It, this was a group “almost entirely funded by private water companies”, effectively acting as a front for these.
It would seem the revolving door began to beckon.
In 2018, Smith wrote an article in the Guardian defending privatisation of the water industries, which was against the stated policy of her party. In 2019, having broken with her own party to join the Independent Group for Change, later known as Change UK, she lost her seat. In 2020, she took up a position on the board of a private water company. Smith might argue that her previously voiced opposition to water nationalisation was purely coincidental. Others might wish to draw a direct line between the prize of her new appointment and her support for privatised water while in parliament.
Calling out ‘corruption’
You can’t have been able to move in Westminster for talk about corruption these days.
Owen Paterson MP, another enthusiastic user of the revolving door, was found guilty by the parliamentary standards committee of an “egregious” breach of what is called ‘paid advocacy rules’. As a paid consultant for two private companies, Paterson was found to have used inappropriate influence to lobby government ministers on their behalf and was set to be excluded from parliament for 30 days.
Rather than allow this judgment to be upheld, the Tory high command decided to effectively legalise bribery by manoeuvring to get Paterson off the hook. This was followed by a humiliating U-turn on the plan the following day, since when talk about corruption has been rife.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said Paterson, “is not fit to serve” and wrote in the Guardian, “I am sick of people skirting around calling this out for what it is: corruption”. Liberal Democrat Wendy Chamberlain went further, condemning “Tory sleaze scandals, from dodgy covid contracts to the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s flat”. Former Prime Minister John Major suggested that Johnson’s government is “politically corrupt”.
Labour politicians also implicated
The problem with working in a swamp is that everybody gets their boots filthy. Starmer’s problem in calling out corruption in the Tory party, is that the Labour Party is far from innocent.
In 2017, Starmer himself was in discussion with law firm Mishcon de Reya regarding a potential advisory role, raising questions of a possible conflict of interest. During his campaign for the Labour leadership, he refused to reveal the names of the donors to his campaign. Which rather undermines his calls for greater transparency. And it’s now been revealed that as an MP, Starmer earned an additional £26k through legal work, on top of his salary.
Those of us with long memories will remember Darlington MP Alan Milburn making a fortune from PepsiCo, the manufacturer of a fizzy drink that is one of the largest contributors to child obesity. The fact that the government of the day, and one in which he was an enthusiastic member, was then engaged in a war against child obesity obviously didn’t concern him. What was the former health secretary’s new job? Advising PepsiCo about the rising levels of public concern over the effects of junk food!
There are so many more examples of Labour MPs, including the main man himself, Tony Blair, making huge amounts of money from private enterprises. In some cases, they were financially remunerated by companies they helped privatise. In the cases of Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt, and Stephen Byers, they brought the same accusations of sleaze on to their party as Paterson has done on his.
If Alan Milburn or Patricia Hewitt had been local councillors, they would have been in front of the courts for wilful misconduct.
Second jobs and corruption – here to stay?
Which brings us back to Angela Smith, and why MPs won’t give up their lucrative second jobs.
What it comes down to is that for both of the main parties, Labour and Conservative, their business in parliament can best be characterised as the social responsibility department of Britain PLC. Parliamentary democracy is a sideshow to making a fortune through second jobs, otherwise known as ‘consultancies’, ‘directorships’ or, putting it bluntly, legalised bribery.
Yorkshire MP, Angela Smith might have had her finger in every pie. But the point is she was the rule, not the exception, on both sides of the political divide.
The Paterson affair has led journalists to start probing the extent to which other current MPs are using their positions inappropriately to earn private sector money, which may cut through sufficiently with the public for some kind of control to be exerted. However, with a dismal record on corruption, and with the amounts of money to be made via the revolving door, Westminster is unlikely to change.
Michael Dobbs, celebrated writer, put it best in his classic thriller House of Cards: London was founded on a swamp. It is still a swamp.