New Labour Sleaze: Any Byers?

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As we head to a general election no doubt concerns will once again be expressed about levels of turnout and "voter apathy".

Tedious comparisons with The X Factor will be made and all sorts of silly suggestions put forward to solve the problem. However, the reasons for disenchantment are surely staring us in the face.

The first must be the ever narrowing ideological divide between the two main parties. There seem to be no great principles separating them - indeed, Tory or Labour, they increasingly all look and sound exactly the same.

Nowhere does this lack of distinction more shockingly occur than in the case of sleaze. Sleaze must surely be the greatest reason that voters think, "A plague on both your houses."

When Tony Blair became prime minister one of the major factors in his landslide victory was a hatred of Tory sleaze. However, in the recent scandals it has been notable that there has hardly been any distinction between the two parties. On both sides an alarmingly large number of MPs were keen to stick their snouts in the trough.

While some of the more absurd claims - duck islands and the like - came from Tories, the real scandal of the expenses racket was the huge amount of fiddling regarding property, second homes and the like, and in this Labour MPs were every bit as guilty as Tories.

Furthermore, anyone watching last month's Dispatches programme can't have failed to be outraged by the performances of a number of high profile Labour figures, who came across as every bit as sleazy and awful as the Tories exposed on the programme.

Of course, watching Tory MPs promising big business access to "prime minister Cameron" before there even is a "prime minister Cameron" should surprise no one - same old Tories, always cheating!

Yet one of the apparent ironies of all this is that two of those exposed by Dispatches - Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon - were or are very close confidants of the same Blair who was elected in revulsion at sleaze. However, this is not as unlikely as one might think.

Throughout his time as prime minister, Blair's fawning over dubious wealthy characters was embarrassingly obvious - and since he ceased to be prime minister it is estimated he has earned himself £20 million. If Blair really saw the "New Labour" project as the abandonment of all old Labour stood for, then what stood out from Byers, Hoon and Patricia Hewitt was just how faithfully they reflected that abandonment.

They are not the first Labour politicians in history to get greedy, but it was the filth they were happy to immerse themselves in that was truly shocking. Hewitt, who was once vaguely thought to be on the left, has been lobbying for the company that owns Bupa, of all things. Byers lobbied Peter Mandelson on behalf of poor little downtrodden Tesco. Hoon, meanwhile, is happy to profit out of arms industry slaughter.

This isn't just taking backhanders to award building contracts (or even just the hugely embarrassing antics of the allegedly sick, but apparently hale and hearty, Luton South MP, Margaret Moran). This is personal enrichment in the interests of people Labour MPs have traditionally hated.

This magazine rightly argues for an anti-Tory vote at the general election, but surely nothing can disengage voters quite so much as prominent Labour politicians behaving like the very worst of the Tories.