Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind can’t see what they have done wrong because they swim in a sea of corporate influence

For the right fee David Miliband will have dinner with you. A couple of years ago, that fee seems to have been around £20,000 + (substantial) expenses. These days, it seems he only asks for £10,000 to £15,000.

I raise this because two of the elder Miliband’s predecessors at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have got themselves into a bit of bother, having been caught red handed offering to use the influence bestowed on them by the British electorate to advance the interests of a fictional Chinese firm in exchange for a significant sum of money.

Jack Straw used the same defence as he did when the Guardian put to him serious questions about his involvement in torture: that he had done nothing which was against the law. I am sure this is true. He may deserve to be in prison for his role in the Iraq War, but he’s not stupid enough to commit more minor offences. Unless you’re a fool, there are plenty of ways to amass a personal fortune from the office time and influence granted to you by your constituents without deviating one iota from the legislation you have a role in writing.

For me, though, these scandals are interesting not because they highlight a few bad apples, but because they are a window into a whole world. There is no suggestion, for example, that any of David Miliband’s dinner engagements have been with anyone particularly unsavoury, but yet they still leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I suppose part of my concern is that I’ve seen the man speak. Despite what the papers always said, he’s no more charismatic than his brother – by which I mean, he can tell a joke and string a sentence together, but it’s nothing special. He’s no Brown or Blair. Given this, why would a company pay more than £26,000 in total to have him at their event? Is it for the jokes, or for something else? Who would they sit him next to during the dinner? What conversation would they have over their starters? What questions would they ask?

Influence is a complex business. It’s about knowing how to put things, and who to put them to. The corridors of power are a maze. Westminster and Whitehall are like the internet without any search engines. With no guide, it’s almost impossible to find what you need. Almost everyone gets lost. How much each of us can influence formal politics depends, therefore, partly on the access we have to those who know parliament best and so can give us a steer.

If you want to know who to talk to about this government policy, or how to getthat detail of law changed, then sitting at dinner next to a former foreign secretary would be very useful. Of course, none of this information is secret. There is no reason he shouldn’t tell anyone who asks. It’s just, not everyone has the opportunity to pose their question. Most people can’t pay £20,000 to get to sit next to the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Of course, it’s unfair to pick on David Miliband. There are huge numbers of current and former politicians who will happily dine at your top table if you write them a vast cheque – Gordon Brown is said to charge £100,000 a night, though his office say (and I don’t doubt) that he doesn’t pocket a penny of it, that it all goes to charity. And I’ve deliberately chosen the fluffy end of the scale. If we’re looking for deals which stink even more, then we’d be talking about former Labour Health Secretary Alan Milburn cashing in on his own NHS privatisation schemes; those coalition MPs with connections to private healthcare companies; or the fact that Tory MP and former whip Brian Wiggin is being paid £5k a year by a company which got the contract to run privatised welfare benefits.

But the harder ways in which our democracy is being auctioned off are only a small part of the problem. Because what really matters are the softer mechanisms – the ways in which those with lots of money find guides to navigate the complexities of the British state, the web of gentle influence which quietly ensures that British public policy never crosses certain lines, that the voices heard first, the people whose language MPs become accustomed to speaking, are at a certain end of the income spectrum.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing when each of these stories breaks is that those who have done wrong seem not to understand where or that they have erred. Like toddlers being told off for putting their fingers in the chocolate spread, they simply don’t see what the issue is. This is because the story about Rifkind and Straw isn’t so much a one off scandal as a system. The walls of Westminster are papered with corporate logos.

Whether it’s a black-tie dinner or a seat on an advisory board, if access to power can be bought, the rich will always be at the front of the queue. Oxfam recently predicted that the UK will soon be the most unequal country in the developed world. Should we really be surprised?