Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner faces a police probe over potential electoral law breaches linked to her address from a decade ago. The issue also underscores Labour’s ethical scrutiny amid political risks highlighted by Keir Starmer’s governance strategy.

T he police have launched an official investigation into allegations that Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, has broken electoral law. While marital living arrangements don’t immediately spring to mind when one hears the phrase “in contravention of electoral law”, this is where we are.

The question at hand is, what was Angela Rayner’s address more than ten years ago? Was it the home she registered as her permanent address (which she bought in 2007), or her husband’s house?

Under electoral law, voters must register their permanent home address. There are penalties for providing incorrect information when registering to vote and when standing for election. There is also a question over whether Rayner should have paid capital gains tax when she sold the house (which she would have been required to if it was not her primary residence).

The Labour Party will hope that this issue becomes “Beergate” 2.0. – that the police find in Rayner’s favour, and everyone moves on. However, complicating matters – as highlighted by Financial Times journalist Stephen Bush – is that, well, they might not find in Rayner’s favour over her tax affairs.

And because it is too late to bring charges over any electoral law breaches from ten years ago, closure on that matter is not possible.

Labour’s strategy under the spotlight

The ethics and standards issues that have troubled the Conservative government since its election in 2019 are legion. It is little surprise that the Labour Party has put ethics at the front and centre of its political attacks – and future governing agenda. Keir Starmer is, understandably, making hay while the sun shines.

In a recently published biography of Starmer, he made his position clear on his high standards when he said: “People will only believe we’re changing politics when I fire someone on the spot. If a minister – any minister – makes a serious breach of the rules, they will be out.” Asked whether this even applied to his chancellor Rachel Reeves, Starmer said: “It doesn’t matter who it is, they’ll be sacked.”

The strategy is not without risk. I am reminded of Rishi Sunak, trying to create clear blue water between himself and Boris Johnson in his first speech as prime minister on the Downing Street steps. He promised a government that would have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level. What he instead created was a huge hostage to fortune – and provided political opponents with a ready-made stick to beat him with.

The same risks are true for Starmer. As Labour gets closer and closer to power, more standards issues will begin to spring up. The generally agreed definition of corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain – the more power you have, the more likely someone will abuse it.

One of the questions you tend to get asked as an expert in corruption is whether people with some political leanings are more likely than others to engage in – to put diplomatically – ethical misadventure. The subtext is always a desire to be told that your political opponents are provably more corrupt. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad.

There is no evidence that this is the case. People have crunched the numbers, as it relates to almost every variable from political affiliation to religious leaning, and the conclusion is quite clear. Standards violations do not discriminate.

If someone is in a position of entrusted power, if they are minded to break the rules, and if there aren’t sufficient safeguards to prevent them from doing so, don’t be all that surprised if they act corruptly.

— Keir Starmer’s strategy is not without risk.

Corruption isn’t black and white

But corruption isn’t just black and white – it’s grey too. That makes a zero-tolerance approach all the more risky.

White corruption is something that is probably corrupt, but broadly considered acceptable by all strata of society. Think about those laws or rules that everyone is aware of, but also everyone is happy to turn a blind eye to.

Having spent the above paragraphs talking about the dangers of creating hostages to fortune, I am absolutely not going to give any examples here. You’ll have to come up with your own (or talk to me in private, off the record).

Black corruption is the opposite, it’s the stuff that everyone agrees is bad. Grey corruption is where there is some disagreement – particularly among the public and the political elite – about the relative severity of a corrupt act.

The problem is that this goes both ways, and is quite hard to measure. As an MP, you can be merrily plodding along, thinking your actions aren’t necessarily within the rules, but that any right-minded thinking individual will agree that it’s not a huge issue.

You can be dead wrong about this, and it can cause real problems. I’d certainly put the expenses scandal in this bucket, and probably partygate too.

On the other hand, you can course-correct too far, and create needless political problems for yourself with an overly hardline approach. An excellent book from the mid-1990s called The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity: How Corruption Control Makes Government Ineffective, highlights a number of instances where this is the case.

While it certainly carries political risks, whoever wins the next election should not be dissuaded from putting ethics and standards at the front and centre of their governing agenda. The past five years have shown that the public really do care about these things and that certain areas – be it lobbying, political finance, or appointments to the House of Lords – could do with either a tune-up, or a wholesale rethink.

Rayner has promised to resign if she is found to have committed a criminal offence. The more interesting question is whether a zero-tolerance approach at the individual level will be reflected in wider institutional reforms should Labour win the next election.



▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 18 April 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Keir Starmer. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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