Behind the excuses and the finger pointing – the bitter pill of party funding

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 26th March 2012

So here we are again. Once more the headlines boom with a brand new ‘cash-for influence’ scandal.

Peter Cruddas, millionaire and Tory donor come hapless Tory treasurer, has been caught in an old fashioned sting operation by the Sunday Times, claiming that £250,000 will buy you access to the Prime Minister and other members of Tory high Command.

Cruddas doesn’t mince his words, in return for joining the Tory donor ‘premier league’ you get to ask the Prime Minister “practically any question [you] want”, allowing you to pick up “key bits of information” and make suggestions which will be fed to the “Policy Committee in No 10” (a committee Downing St says does not exist).

All this is very titillating but as the newest explosion of scandal in a long line of eye-wateringly similar scandals, we have to ask ourselves: will anything now change as a result?

While the Conservatives are busy washing their hands and crying their innocence and Labour are making no effort to rein in their gleeful finger pointing, the combined noise they create is distracting from two obvious truths:

1. This is not an isolated incident – whatever the Conservatives say

2. This is not only a Tory party problem – whatever Labour may say

Let’s look at the depressingly plentiful evidence. Back in 1994 Conservative MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith were involved in the notorious ‘Cash for Questions’ row and in 2006 we had the Labour Party’s ‘cash for peerages’ scandal. In 2009 four Labour life peers were exposed for offering to  make amendments to legislation for £120,000 and in 2008 the largest ever donor to the Liberal Democrats; Michael Brown, was convicted in abstentia of two counts of theft, one of furnishing false information and one of perverting the course of justice. Most recently in 2010 a series of high profile politicians across the party spectrum agreed to use their political influence in return for payments of between £3,000 and £5,000 from a fictitious lobbying firm.

So what is to be done? Recent discussions around reforming party funding to mitigate against the undue influence of rich donors on British politics have gone no-where. The debate has sunk into petty partisan squabbles with no party willing to accept measures which may dent their own income.

For any agreement to be worth the paper it’s printed on the bigger parties will have to accept a donations cap and Labour will have to agree for this to apply to Union donations. In their recommendations the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposed a cap of £10,000 and Conservatives have signaled they may accept a cap of £50,000 which is still ludicrously high.

Quite apart from its openness to abuse the current system is principally flawed; allowing parties focus on a few wealthy individuals rather than trying to attract support from a wider base which would be much healthier from a democratic point of view.

It’s also clear that something needs to be done to slow the ‘arms race’ in election spending, both to reduce overall spending and to manage the advantage that the bigger parties have over their smaller rivals. An election spending cap would be incredibly difficult to monitor and enforce however and it would be essential that any restrictions were backed up by full transparency and enforcement.

Ultimately we want politicians and parties to be answerable to us; the British public. No-one through dint of their wealth should be able to buy a greater say in how our country is run.

Clearly we need to stop shying away from the elephant in the room, the only guaranteed way of ensuring the British voter comes first. We need to look seriously at state funding.

In this time of austerity politicians and public alike will be uncomfortable with the idea of the tax-payer stumping up the cash but as Mary Ann Sieghart asks in the Independent today ‘Is 50p a year really too much to end this corruption?’. Is the cost of a packet of crisps a year really too much to ask for the security of a government without backhanders?

Admittedly the recent ‘millionaire’s Budget’ begs the question: can’t a government that can find room in the budget to cut the 50p tax rate find some change down the back of its sofa to invest in protecting British democracy?, but let’s not expect miracles.

This new disgrace will blow over, as all the rest did, but public trust in politicians is on a downward spiral and will simply not take an infinite number of future ‘cash-for…’ scandals. It’s time for the parties to grow-up and accept their responsibilities. No-one likes to have their income cut (just ask post-Budget pensioners) and it will certainly be a bitter pill for the parties to swallow but swallow it they must. Britain’s democracy deserves that much.

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