The world of politics is too often crippled by deception. Although it is a current trend to speak of “fake news”, as if it was a recent innovation, it is not. Public affairs have always been bedevilled by spin, evasion, and downright lies. The unscrupulous have always endeavoured to mislead their colleagues and the wider public, whether for political or financial gain.
This is probably more the case at a local level than it is at a national level. There are effective mechanisms within parliament, for example, specifically designed to root out wrongdoing. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have, between them, uncovered many a scandal. Likewise, the constant scrutiny of national media is devoted to catching out any impropriety by those entrusted with maintaining the highest standards in parliament and in government. Who will forget the media’s role in exposing the MPs’ expenses scandal?
Unfortunately, local government is not monitored so effectively or so thoroughly. We have seen how, in Liverpool, the intended scrutiny of an elected mayor was quickly scrapped. As for a vigilant local media, that role was abandoned by them years ago. For whatever reason, the award-winning scrutiny of the 1980s has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
There is yet another telling feature in standards of local governance – the disappearance in many areas of a meaningful political opposition. Although I have been a Labour Party member for over 50 years, I have never been one of those zealots who wished for a total Labour hegemony. Where is the democracy in that? Without a vibrant and assiduous opposition, any elected authority is prey to corruption; and Labour corruption is no more acceptable than that in any other party. Do you recall the old adage that while “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”?
For these reasons, amongst others, we should always be wary of the rumour mill. Far too often, gossip becomes the received wisdom about both politics and politicians. Poor judgements by the latter are sometimes transmuted into corrupt practice. It is essential that any such charges levelled at elected representatives must be rooted in fact rather than fancy. If I had a pound for every unsubstantiated allegation I had heard concerning local politicians, I would be a very rich man indeed.
That does not mean that every allegation ought to be discounted. Quite the reverse, as there is so often a truth behind them. What is necessary is some concrete evidence rather than a simple leap of the imagination concerning someone you might not like or trust.
Here on Merseyside, if we look at what we know, it is clear that the police have seen fit to look at senior council officers concerning at least three councils. Back in the 1960s, when the Poulsen scandal was at its height in local government, it was established as a principle that, if an officer was corrupt, there would need to be a corrupt councillor or councillors to partner that officer in some way. That remains true today.
In conclusion, it is not just the laws on slander and libel which demand that we back up allegations with hard evidence. After all, honest and effective local government is at stake. It is also why I harp on so much about accountability and transparency. Without them, local government is simply a rotten hulk, doomed to collapse.