Power to the People - An Independent Inquiry into Britain's Democracy


Published by the Power Inquiry
March 2006
ISBN 0 9550303 15

The Power Inquiry, chaired Helena Kennedy QC, addresses the problem of disenchantment with politics, particularly amongst the young; Britain is suffering from "a democratic malaise that has spread far beyond some disappointing turnouts, and which is a cause of great concern…most worryingly, there is now a well-ingrained popular view across the country that our political institutions and their politicians are failing, untrustworthy, and disconnected from the great mass of the British people….this [last] point cannot be stressed too strongly. We have been struck by just how wide and deep is the contempt felt for formal politics. A message of disappointment, frustration and anger with our elected leaders came through loud and clear in all the different methods of evidence gathering employed by the Inquiry".

There was a time when politics in Britain meant debates within trade union conventions, in Church of England synods, in Womens' Institute meetings and such venues. Today politics is the machination of lobbyists, fixers and interest groups. Nevertheless there is a triumphalism that the model of democracy to be found in the US and British dispensations is the only way forward; surely this is to be in a state of denial. Muslims are repeatedly told that they are 'in denial' on the issue of violent extremism in their ranks; equally there are Western leaders in their own form of denial.

These politicians like to believe that people abstain from voting because of apathy or laziness. The Power Inquiry concludes that this is not the case: it is mistrust and lack of transparency that has turned people off. It notes, presciently, "there is a widespread perception that donations to parties can buy influence or position….the reliance of the main parties on a small number of large donations is not conducive to democratic engagement or transparency". The Inquiry contains a troubling forewarning:"the outcome of inaction will only be ever greater decline in the public esteem in which politicians are held. Ultimately, it is possible that the brief local upsurges in support for anti-democratic and populist parties and candidates will develop into local, regional and even national mutinies as popular disenchantment with the main parties, elections and political decision-making is mobilized and focused. The potential for this to happen would be magnified vastly should Britain suffer a period of economic slowdown in the future". The Inquiry was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and has been in deliberation for two years, interviewing civil society representatives and experts.

President Bush in his last 'Statement to the Union' address invoked 'democracy' three times, presenting the US as the epitome. Similarly our Prime Minister in a foreign policy speech (21st March 2006, Foreign Policy Centre) used the word five times - also in the context of what the West has to offer the Muslim world. Speaking to the Australian Parliament on 27th March the language was quite emotional: "We know the values we believe in: democracy and the rule of law...ranged against us are the people who hate us; but beyond them are many more who don't hate us but question our motives, our good faith, our even-handedness, who could support our values but believe we support them selectively….The immediate threat is from Islamist extremism. You mourn your victims from Bali as we do ours and those from July 7 last year in London…We will not defeat this terror until we face up to the fact that its roots are deep, and that it is not a passing spasm of anger, but a global ideology at war with us and our way of life. Their case is that democracy is a western concept we are forcing on an unwilling culture of Islam…".

In this high moral tone the Washington or Westminster model of democratic dispensation is the holy grail; challenges are tantamount to treason. The Power Inquiry injects an element of humility, and points out that the model is problematic. Two recent episodes lend weight to the Inquiry's forebodings. The first is concerned with the tale of greed and influence that has come to light with the unmasking of the US 'super' lobbyist Jack Abramoff; the second is our own recent peerages-for-cash scandal - and revelations on the central role of the Prime Minister's "brother", Lord Michael Levy.

Abramoff took advantage of a US law that allowed native American tribes the rights to operate gambling facilities free of state regulation. Offering himself as a middleman who would introduce investors, he took a cut both from the Indian chiefs and the gambling operators. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee established that over $66 million in payments and "millions more" in political donations were extracted from six Indian tribes by Abramoff and his secret junior partner Michael Scanlon. A beneficiary of some of these monies was the Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Abramoff also prompted the tribes on how to cast their votes. A number were asked to donate $1 million dollars to the Capital Athletic foundation. The naïve tribal chiefs - some appointed through Abramoff's manipulations - thought their funds were going for inner city kids. However a significant chunk went to purchase paramilitary gear such as night vision goggles for the town of Beitar Illit, described as an ultra-Orthodox outpost in the West Bank. Abramoff was a "super -Zionist" according to an associate. His spokesman Andrew Blum stated that Abramoff "is an especially strong supporter of Israel and has tried ways to help Israelis and others to be less susceptible to terrorist attacks [1]. Tom DeLay is a member of the AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of most powerful bodies swaying US foreign policy [2]. How many congressmen have the bottle to declare such sway as disproportionate and unhealthy for democracy?

Abramoff's influence reached the highest levels -there is a photo taken in 2001 showing Bush shaking hands with the leader of an Indian tribe that was an Abramoff client - and the lobbyist is in the background. An AP press report stated that " In an e-mail Abramoff sent to a magazine editor, he said he had brief conversations with Bush almost a dozen times and the president knew him well enough to make joking references to Abramoff's family. Lobbying records obtained by The AP show his lobbying team met nearly 200 times with administration officials during the first 10 months of Bush's presidency on behalf of one of his clients, the Northern Mariana Islands [3].

The Washington Post, on 4th January 2006 concluded that "Abramoff has become a symbol of a system out of control… People are uneasy about what else is out there". [4]

The UK's peerage-for-cash scandal that broke in March 2006 provided a further example of the dysfunctionality in the Washington-Westminster democratic dispensation. The scandal brought to light secret donations to the Labour Party of £14 million; the Conservatives' efforts to conceal its secret lenders were also unraveled in the process.

BBC reported that "The Commons public administration committee is to ask chief Labour fundraiser Lord Levy to answer questions on his role in arranging unpublicised loans of millions of pounds from businessmen nominated for peerages" [5]. The Guardian on 25th March 2006 traced the links between Levy and the named donors, observing "The scandal has also thrown a rare shaft of light on to the private world of Lord Levy and his web of connections with business and charities. They show that many of the Labour lenders had initially been donors to Lord Levy's favourite charities, such as the Community Service Volunteers, Jewish Care and the NSPCC. Three of the 12 who gave Labour loans - Andrew Rosenfield, Barry Townsley and Sir David Garrard - are also patrons of Jewish Care. As the graphic shows, many others had close links with other charities. Richard Caring, owner of the Ivy restaurant in London, raised £10m for the NSPCC at a ball in St Petersburg with a video message from Mr Blair. Others have links with Community Service Volunteers. Lord Levy is its president. Here the rollcall is the largest, with Sir David Garrard, Derek Tullett, Andrew Rosenfield, Dr Patel and Richard Caring all connected to the charity" [6].

Lord Levy has claimed that "he and the Prime Minister were like brothers"[7]. A man whose previous expertise was in the music and entertainment business (he set up Magnet Records in 1972, later sold to Warner Brothers), was appointed in 2000 by his "brother" to serve as his personal Middle Eastern envoy, with an office inside the Foreign & Commonwealth Office! Lord Levy also owns a villa in Herzliya Pituah, described as an exclusive suburb of Tel Aviv. He has acted as a fundraiser for Ehud Barak and his son Daniel worked for the Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin. Both his children live in Israel. On 30th March 2005, Marina Hyde in the Guardian Diary reported that Levy, disagreeing with the 'flying pigs' advert commissioned by Alan Milburn for the General Election, threatened "that should he [Milburn] ever attempt a crack at the [Labour] leadership, Lord L will withdraw all the funding from the Jewish community". One wonders why MPs did not have the bottle to question the Prime Minister on the issue of conflict of interest? Has the dual role of Lord Levy as a star fundraiser and policy advisor not had a stifling effect on open debate, on which democracy depends?

Much like the Abramoff's hapless Native Indians, the Levy scandal has unfortunately besmirched the reputation of two hardworking Asian entrepreneurs, Sir Ghulam Noon and Dr Chai Patel. The former states that he is "devastated": "I have been here for the last 37 years. I have built up my businesses. I created wealth and jobs and I have never borrowed so much as £5 without repaying it with interest... Sir Ghulam reveals more details about the role played by Lord (Michael) Levy in soliciting the loans before the election. "We meet socially, we chat on the telephone. I said: 'Listen Mike, I can only give this much.' But he insists that there was never any mention of an honour in return. 'There was no pressure, no promises.' He jokes: 'If I wanted a promise I would have gone to Tony Blair'."[8]

The Power Inquiry notes that there are "profound structural issues" that need addressing if political engagement is to be revitalized. A democratic dispensation worthy of emulation is one in which the ordinary citizen does not have this deep sense of mistrust and sense of helplessness so commonplace today. The Washington-Westminster democratic dispensation is not the end of politics.

M. A. Sherif
March 2006

1. Fund-Raising: Take It to the (West) Bank Money meant for the inner city went to fight the intifada. What donors to Jack Abramoff's charity didn't know. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7615249/site/newsweek/
2. The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html
3. Group sues over Abramoff White House visits Group wants access to logs to determine frequency of lobbyist’s meetings http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11608593/
4. Case Bringing New Scrutiny To a System and a Profession, by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Dan Balz http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/03/AR2006010301536.html
5. Lord Levy: Labour's fundraiser http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/uk_politics/4816692.stm
6. http://politics.guardian.co.uk/labour/story/0,,1739302,00.html
7. Scotland Yard asks MPs to delay their inquiry while it questions donors http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/uk_politics/4816692.stm
8. Money talks: Twelve angry men and one shame-faced Prime Minister http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article353692.ece