Theresa May Pork Barrel Politics Accusations

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Leading up to the vote on Brexit in the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister is being accused by some media outlets of trying to get Labour MP’s to ‘sell their vote’. Several politicians and journalists have used the term ‘pork barrel politics’ to criticise May’s actions.

That being said, what is pork barrel politics, does it exist in the United Kingdom, and if so, should we be concerned?

Tom Lancaster, a US political scientist, explains that pork barrel politics, or distributive politics, is ‘the process that allows a legislator to attain central government projects for his geographic constituency by directly influencing appropriations’. The main characteristic is that the rewards go to a certain geographical area, whereas the costs are spread out through the nation thanks to general taxation. To put into the context of the UK, pork barrel politics consists of members of parliament winning funding for projects in their constituency while taxpayers across the country pay for it.

Examples of pork barrel politics in the UK are multiple, from handing out free electricity to a certain community just before an election, to allowing development projects in a swing constituency.

The general public and most media outlets have a very negative view on pork barrel politics, but should we really be that concerned?

Deconstructing the concept of pork barrel politics, it’s easy to spot the dangers of such activities. More than just a waste of tax payers money, pork allows lawmakers to be distracted from key issues, takes away their independence and invites corruption into the political system.

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Distributive politics authorizes one member of parliament to give public money to another MP, in return for support. Pork allows officials to spend taxpayers money for projects that are not of general benefit, undermining the whole democratic process. Officials use public money for political support or private gains, thinking that they may use taxpayer funds as their personal entitlement.

Pork seems to show its face when the UK is getting close to an election. As re-election of officials is key, close to an election MPs will up their skills to try and get funding for their constituency and therefore please voters. Often taking place in marginal constituencies, MPs who have backing from those in power are granted a lot of pork and have more of a chance of getting re-elected.

To give an example of pork barrel politics in action in a marginal state, the conservative party was accused of using pork just before an election in the constituency of Kent where one of the candidates and main rival was the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage. Kent was benefiting from a £12 hand out from the government for high-speed rail improvements. When this came to light it sparked a media storm discrediting and accusing the conservatives of corruption. This example is just one of many in UK politics that shows the destructive and negative effects of pork barrel politics. But if these activities are solemnly negative and anti-democratic, why are they still legal? Are there any positive aspects to pork barrel politics in the United Kingdom?

According to many political scientists, pork barrel politics is an essential component to any democratic system with many benefits. The first benefit of distributive politics is that it keeps the legislative process in motion. When the government proposes a new bill in the house of commons, they will need to obtain a majority for it to pass. Distributing a little pork is a great way of getting that majority. As Starobin explains, “when applied with skill, pork can act as lubricant to smooth passage of complex legislation”. Diana Evans in her book Greasing the Wheels. Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress explains that “giving those in a position to use it considerable ability to reach across party lines in search of allies”

Another benefit, explained in Public interest by Ellwood and Patashrnik, is that it allows legislators to take risky actions for the public good without the retaliation of voters. This is very important in the UK for issues of national interest, where proposing such a project without pork, and therefore not a strong backing, would be political suicide.

Finally, pork barrel politics allows the easy formation of a government when one party does not hold a majority. In June 2017, Theresa May lost her majority and therefore needed to form a coalition. Thanks to a little pork, she formed a government with the DUP, a political party in Northern Ireland, by promising to increase spending to £1bn in the following 2 years. These sort of agreements have often happened in the past in the UK.

To conclude, many believe pork barrel politics is anti-democratic, even pure corruption. But it does not consist solemnly of this. Thanks to pork, the United Kingdom, like many other countries, benefits greatly. It smooths legislation, allows interest groups to be heard, helps create majorities in government and allows legislators to take risky actions, among many other things. Therefore, pork barrel politics may be considered a waste of money, but it is also a small price to pay.

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