Scandal Scrutiny and the Political Theatre of Parliament

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton (@DrAlixKelso). You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.


At a time when each week seems to bring fresh revelations about some new scandal – be it from the world of politics, finance, business, entertainment, or whatever – we hear a lot about how it has never been more important to ‘uncover the truth’ and ‘get to the bottom of things’, so that ‘it can never happen again.’ House of Commons select committees have found themselves to be uniquely positioned in this growth industry of scandal scrutiny, and by exploiting this positioning they’ve succeeded in raising the profile of parliament as an important arena for political action. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has long been at the forefront of parliamentary scrutiny, and has recently assumed even greater political saliency as a result of the strategic leadership of its chair, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge. PAC’s recent investigations into tax avoidance and evasion, and in particular Hodge’s grilling of senior HSBC figures, has drawn the criticism that Hodge is ‘abusive and bullying’ and presiding over ‘a theatrical exercise in public humiliation.’ These comments are interesting for a number of reasons.

First, the notion that committee scrutiny is a ‘theatrical exercise’ is in fact hugely revealing of the institutional setting. Parliament is the nation’s pre-eminent ‘theatre of action’[i]. It’s the stage on which political actors enact a range of vital performances, from which they take cues from off-stage participants, and through which they signal important political messages to watching audiences. Describing parliamentary politics as ‘theatrical’ isn’t therefore particularly contemptuous, and the metaphor is incredibly useful in helping us to understand the behaviour and activity of MPs inside parliament.

This leads directly to the second point, which is that in pursuing this burgeoning market in scandal scrutiny, select committees would be negligent if they didn’t use all the resources at their disposal, including the ability to embarrass witnesses. For the most part, the only public scrutiny many of these witnesses will ever be exposed to is that visited upon them by parliamentary committees. Irrespective of what happens to those individuals or their institutions thereafter, it is fundamental to the operation of democracy that significant figures are at least seen to be challenged and questioned. Whether such challenging and questioning is the same as holding them to account is of course another matter. But the very public and highly visible process of scrutiny that is possible through parliamentary committees is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for ensuring the democratic health of our political system. The oxygen of publicity is, after all, a highly effective disinfectant. Parliamentary committees may not be in a position to resolve any of the scandals they investigate, but they are increasingly crucial agenda-setting actors, and their scrutiny actions can and do help determine how long an issue will remain on the media’s radar. What’s more, when committee members ask hard questions, and appear incredulous when witnesses answer those questions, they are merely channelling the behaviours expected of them by their similarly incredulous constituents.

Which leads to the final point: the role of the committee chair is of fundamental importance in understanding what action a committee will take on any given issue, which is why Margaret Hodge at PAC has drawn both criticism and applause. Leadership matters in select committees, and the chair is crucial in setting the tone of investigations and determining the vigour with which summoned witnesses are questioned. Hodge’s behaviour in the PAC chair has been described as ‘grandstanding’, but labelling an active and relentless chair in this way entirely misconceives the emerging strategic role of chairs and their increased willingness to exploit the parliamentary resources at their disposal, resources which would not otherwise be available to them as backbench MPs. The whole point of shifting in 2010 to a system of elected select committee chairs was to beef up the scrutiny capacity of the Commons and imbue chairs with greater authority and legitimacy to act. To then describe chairs as ‘grandstanding’ when they put those institutional resources to use is disingenuous.

So long as scandals continue to be uncovered, parliamentary committees will continue to position themselves on the political stage as wily inquisitors working on behalf of the exploited and the victimised, and active chairs will vigorously pursue witnesses so long as there is a political market for doing so. Ultimately, the very best actors will always learn how to maximise their use of the stage on which they perform so as to throw their voices to the darkest corners of the theatre. This truth is what makes the study of parliament and its committees so compelling.

The author acknowledges the support of ESRC research funding (RES-061-25-0391).

[i] Uhr, J. and J. Wanna, 2000, ‘The future roles of parliament’ in M. Keating, J. Wanna, and P. Weller (eds.) Institutions on the Edge? Capacity for Governance, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

 

Mexico Needs to Put Corruption on the Political Agenda

By Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan and Simca Theresa Simpson. Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan is a Postgraduate Research Student in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton and Simca Theresa Simpson is an MSc Graduate from the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Following The Economist’s description of the current political crisis in Mexico as the “The Mexican Morass” (http://econ.st/1ExFARX), an apparent warning call from the international community has gone out to the Mexican government to build transparency into its national administration.

Peña Nieto’s government comes in the new wake of the democratization process in Mexico. This has meant the end of the single-party system, the election of Partido Acción Nacional (Right-party) administrations for two terms. The current president claims to be the new face of the PRI (the party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years), and the only government capable of pushing for the reforms needed to achieve the economic and social growth needed to move towards greater development. Indeed, Peña Nieto’s Administration passed constitutional transformations in Congress at an astonishing pace, and succeeded at enshrining political alliances and the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico) into these changes. Through the Pact, the three major parties in Mexico commit themselves to analysing the constitutional reforms and working together to achieve development. However, once the constitutional reforms were passed, the Pact ended and the normal political discrepancies were back to normal. Nonetheless, the economic situation seemed to be improving, mainly, because the reforms allowed investment into economic sectors that had formerly been closed to private investment. The perfect storm was brewed under this political environment, nonetheless, with the events of the #Ayotzinapa kidnaping, the #Tlataya massacre and the discovery of links between members of the current administration and Grupo Higa (a business empire that won numerous contracts under Peña’s administration in the State of Mexico). To make matters worse, investment rates and predicted economic growth rates in the country are less stellar than expected, and as an oil-producing country, drops in petrol prices translate into greater misfortune.

The government has called for the Mexican people to overcome these events through a series of measures. However, Mexican society continues to reject the actions and information provided thus far by the government. The Mexican people have little faith in the discourse that the government is presenting. Likewise, with a tremendous lack of accountability, matching that of the current administration, the opposition parties haven’t provided a real alternative or taken a stand in the fact of these events. To complicate matters further, 2015 is an electoral year in Mexico, and under this perfect storm is not clear what stances the parties, including the President’s own, will take. It is likely that Mexico is experiencing one of its worst periods of political crisis, and to date the parties have no concrete solutions for facing June’s impending elections.

In this environment, three scenarios are possible in terms of addressing the events that have recently unfolded in Mexico in election time. First, the current administration could come up with a credible proposal to fight corruption and strengthen accountability. This would certainly strengthen the standing of their party (the PRI). Secondly the opposition could seize this opportunity and come up with credible proposals (other than those taken up by the current administration). This could give them a better chance at winning more seats in Congress. The third option, however, is a stalemate in which recent events are swept under the carpet, and the electoral process trudges along comme si rien n’était. The third option is of course the most dreadful.

It is likely that the only way for Mexico to move towards reducing corruption and policing it, will be for all politicians to view this topic as a political issue rather than simply joining the race for the best rhetorical defence in the face of accusations. The only way for truly make fighting corruption an issue on the agenda is for politicians of all stripes to realise that this is the only way to truly gain the trust of the citizenry. Has Mexico reached the point at which transparency can be a political topic, or are politicians so self-interested that they will blacklist the fight against corruption as an agenda item, because most of them have themselves been stained by acts of corruption at some point in their political career?

This electoral period may actually been marked by the most diluted political debates since the democratization process gained steam. The campaigns are approaching and it will be seen how political parties start to frame their campaigns. The Mexican people can hope that politicians do not take the third option: to sweep recent events under carpet and simply wait for this moment to pass. Many topics for campaign agendas could be taken from the #Ayotzinapa, #Tlataya, and the conflict of interest scandal. This is a good opportunity for Mexican politicians to frame their agendas in a new light.

The current situation in Mexico is an opportunity to build true politics of anti-corruption and accountability. General agreement and political consensus happened with the electoral reforms that put the country on the path to democracy. This probably caused the PRI to lose the elections in 1997 and; then 2000 and 2006. They shot themselves in the foot. However, the party came back onto the scene with a significant role, allowing it to secure the presidency once again in 2012. That’s how politics works.

The good news is that today the electoral system in Mexico is more democratic than before. It is true that it still needs transformations and discussions are underway for improving the electoral system, however, the impact of democratic transformations cannot be denied. There is no doubt that the electoral system is stronger than 20 years ago. General consensus pushed forward the electoral reforms in the 90s that ended Mexico’s single-party system in Mexico. But, can a general agreement be secured about fighting corruption or are there many personal interests that make accountability an impossible political topic? Will Mexicans be able to say in the coming years that the system is less corrupt than in the past? Truly this is a call for politicians to put tackling corruption on the political agenda, for the benefit of Mexican society.