Just before the last General Election David Cameron came to this university and promised he would fix what he called “our broken politics”.
But more than three years on it’s worth reflecting on the state of our politics after David Cameron has had more than half a Parliament as Prime Minister.
And it is worth considering whether the lobbying bill that comes to Parliament next week will make things better or worse.
It is those two issues that I want to address this morning.
First, then, the state of our politics.
For me, the task of politics is to provide real answers to the problems that people face.
Today those problems are only too evident: Wages squeezed, prices rising year on year on year, and a profound sense that for most hard working families today, Britain is not working for them.
While it is the cost of living crisis that really worries families, the Government seems to believe that its task is simply to wish it away.
Telling families that their incomes are rising when they know the opposite to be true.
The truth is that what we are seeing is the ‘Crosbyisation’ of the Conservative Party, a desperate resort to the politics of division and the dog whistle.
And it is now the case that David Cameron’s politics have come down to trying to exploit the problems the country faces rather than trying to solve them.
• He’s been sending ad vans round the UK with ill-judged messages on immigration, cynically designed to divide communities
• He’s decided that his job isn’t to run the NHS, it’s to run it down
• And on social security, rather than tackling the long term drivers of increased spending, David Cameron seeks to divide the country by labeling anyone who receives support as a “shirker”
We can see this nasty strategy clearly.
On immigration. A look back at the last year would tell you the government’s policy adds up to cheap and nasty gimmicks, rather than serious proposals to tackle the real problems.
In the same month that those offensive ad vans were touring London demanding that illegal migrants hand themselves in, we learnt that the Home Office had not been finger printing migrants stopped at Calais or Coquelles for three years and had not followed up 90% of its intelligence leads on illegal immigration.
Or take the NHS, where we see the Government attacking doctors and nurses in the media, blaming them for problems in the NHS that Ministers have created.
Like on the crisis in A&E. The Government wasted weeks trying to blame GPs instead of apologising for the chaos with NHS 111 or their huge cuts to elderly care, which just added to the pressure.
Instead of making the serious, long-term reforms we need to integrate health and social care, all this Government is offering is a crude politics of blame to try and distract attention from their own failures.
That’s not about building a better politics. Quite the opposite.
The Conservative Party now thinks their route to victory is about exploiting the problems the country faces rather than trying to solve them.
But it won’t work.
In fact, Lynton Crosby’s strategy of divide and rule misunderstands the crucial point about the next election: it will be a living standards election. It will be fought on whether or not people feel an improvement in their everyday lives.
Under this government it is only a few at the top who’ve felt a change for the better.
• Recent YouGov polling shows that 70% believe recent improvements in the economy have not benefited middle and lower income families, with just 10% saying they have.
• And 81% believe that politicians like George Osborne who say household incomes have grown faster than price rises are “out of touch”.
What David Cameron should realise, is that in a living standards election, especially one in tough economic times, a party’s values matter more than anything.
It’s as simple as whether hard working families think you are on their side.
That is why David Cameron’s priority should have been to deal with his party’s image as the nasty party, out of touch with everyone but the very richest.
Instead he has made a strategic mistake in thinking that following Lynton Crosby’s advice will do anything other than reinforce the public’s negative views of the Conservative Party.
It just reminds people that when push comes to shove David Cameron is simply not in politics for them.
At the next election, the British People will have a clear choice David Cameron, on the side of his millionaire friends, playing the politics of division and the dog whistle, or Ed Miliband, who will bring us together as One Nation.
A Tory Party that has only improved the chances of a few at the top,
Or a Labour Party that is doing the heavy lifting in opposition so that we can deliver the economy working people need.
The Prime Minister’s failure to deliver the political reform he promised matters here too.
In opposition, he promised a move away from the big donor culture and he insisted that in his government money would never buy you influence.
But instead we have seen
• Major hedge fund donors giving over thirty two million pounds to the Conservative Party, and being repaid with a one hundred and forty five million pound giveaway to hedge funds in the last Budget
• Adrian Beecroft donating £693,000 to the Conservative Party, and then being allowed to write a government report making it easier to fire people, not hire them
• And who can forget the millionaire’s tax cut? As one of the Tories’ City donors tellingly put it, “among those that give significant amounts to the party, it’s a big issue, and that’s probably why it’s a big issue for the party too.”
David Cameron promised change, but rather than tackling the Conservatives’ declining membership and creating a broader funding base, all we’ve had is dodgy donors who pay to come for dinners in Downing Street.
Nothing’s changed, the Tories only stand up for a few at the top.
In a living standards election, that will be fatal.
So it is against the backdrop of a Prime Minister taking our politics further out of touch with hard-working people that I now turn to the second part of my speech – whether the Lobbying Bill that comes to the House of Commons next week will make things better or worse.
Whether it will improve our politics, or degrade it further.
The bill seeks to do two substantive things. Both of which Labour supports making progress on and which could make a difference to the broken parts of our politics David Cameron said he was so keen to see change.
First, on lobbying.David Cameron was right to say in 2010 that it was the next big scandal waiting to happen. And it has happened, to him.
This bill should be introducing a real register of lobbyists. Instead it covers just 1% of the industry. It is just a ‘lobbyists charter’.
It would have done nothing to prevent the scandals the Prime Minister warned against. It is so useless it would have no effect on Lynton Crosby, the lobbyist at the heart of Downing Street.
Second, reducing spending on politics. We agree that keeping the big money out of politics is key to bringing people back into it.
But, the big money in politics today is spent by political parties not by charities and campaigning groups. Yet this bill tries to gag civil society, while doing nothing to curtail spending by political parties who spent ten times more than all third parties put together in the run-up to the last general election.
Let me now turn to each of these two issues in some detail.
I’ll start with lobbying.
Three and a half years ago David Cameron, at this University, promised to take political power out of the hands of the elite and give it back to ordinary people. He promised that there would be no “Decisions made behind closed doors”. No “Money buying influence”.
Instead, we have had three years littered with lobbying scandals – from Adam Werrity and Fred Michel to Lynton Crosby.
And we now have a bill so bad that far from ‘shining the light of transparency on lobbying’, it will shield lobbying from transparency and let vested interests off the hook. The bill’s definition of so called third party ‘consultant lobbyists’ is so narrow that it captures only a tiny minority of the industry. The Association of Professional Political Consultants say it would cover just one percent of Ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists. And even those lobbyists who would have to register would still be able to lobby government advisers, MPs or civil servants without telling anyone.
Only David Cameron could present a lobbying bill so narrow that it doesn’t even cover Lynton Crosby.
It wouldn’t even cover a lobbyist lobbying an MP about the lobbying bill.
This bill is so bad that it has achieved the unique feat of uniting transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry against it. They say it isn’t just too narrow, but that it makes things worse and not better. With no code of conduct or sanctions for bad behaviour, the Bill is a step backwards from the current voluntary register that already governs parts of the industry.
That is why Labour will be tabling amendments to the bill to bring in a universal register of all professional lobbyists with a code of conduct backed by sanctions.
We will also seek to close the loopholes that allow Crosby to escape. We would ensure that anyone doing a senior job for the government of the day who is a professional lobbyist must be declared. And we would put in place proper oversight of conflicts of interests when people take up senior roles in government.
The bill also addresses the issue of third-party campaigning, in what it claims is an attempt to take the big money out of politics. But it doesn’t even mention the real source of the problem: the amount spent nationally on election campaigning by political parties.
Political parties nationally spent £31m at the 2010 election, compared to just £3m by third-party campaigners. The biggest third-party spender spent just 4% of the £17m spent by the Conservative Party.
And it is this arms race between parties that leads to a dash to grab the biggest donors.
We’ve already said that we’d like to see a five thousand pound cap on donations to political parties, as one route to taking the big money out of politics.
But with the Tories increasingly reliant on rich City donors, is it any wonder that Prime Minister has resisted such a cap?
So on getting the big money out of politics, this Bill spectacularly misses the point.
But it has a more sinister consequence, too. It proposes damaging changes to campaigning rules that seem designed to scare charities and campaigners away from speaking out.
David Cameron used to evangelise about the ‘Big Society’. But this Bill is an assault on it.
In a letter to Chloe Smith at the weekend, the National Council of Voluntary Organisations said that these changes will “have the result of muting charities and groups of all sorts and sizes on the issues that matter most to them and the people they support”.
The Electoral Commission has even warned the changes could see blogs regulated.
One of the most fundamental changes in the rules is that campaigning will be restricted even if it wasn’t intended to affect the outcome of an election, for example by engaging in public policy debate.
The bill also adds staff costs and overheads to what campaigners have to declare, which could mean that larger charities have to pull back from any public facing activity in the year before the election to avoid hitting the much lowered spending limit – and facing a criminal charge.
There are also concerns that the bill will deter smaller organisations, for example to save a local Sure Start, from campaigning because they won’t be able to afford the administrative burden required to report. And, it will also prevent charities from campaigning in coalitions because the full cost of the coalition would have to be registered against each organisation.
This bill is a cynical attempt by the Government to insulate their record and their policies from legitimate, democratic criticism in an election year.
It could stop:
• organisations like the NUS from being able to hold the Lib Dems to account for their broken promises on tuition fees;
• or stop organisations like the Daycare Trust highlighting how Cameron has driven up the cost of childcare for working families;
• or stop organisations like the Royal College of Nursing from warning the public about David Cameron’s cuts to nurses.
It is clear that for David Cameron, the Big Society meant food banks and homeless shelters to cover up for his government’s failures. But his army of volunteers certainly aren’t entitled to express a view in the run up to the election.
At a time when trust in politics is at an all time low, this is an attack on the one part of our politics that is doing a good job at engaging people.
A bill that allows Lynton Crosby and Big Tobacco to set policy on cigarette packaging, but that could stop an organisation like Cancer Research UK from complaining about it.
No-one supports this bill.It is a bad piece of legislation that will take our politics backwards.
My message to David Cameron today is this: think again, rewrite this bill so it properly regulates the lobbying industry, doesn’t attack the big society which you once championed, and takes the big money out of politics.
If you do, we will back you, and we can take a small step towards building the better politics we so urgently need to see.