by Peter Watt
The cringe inducing video of Peter Cruddas promising supper with Sam and David with comic buffoonery was still leading the news. The nod and a wink about the promise of policy input into (something called) the number ten policy committee of course took this to another level. At a stroke it went from being just another “cash for access story” to “cash for policy” – the real daddy of political sleaze. Having said that, I was actually still quite optimistic on Sunday, maybe this time there would be a political deal; maybe this time our politicians will sort it out; maybe this time there would be legislation fundamentally reforming the funding of political parties?
But by Monday evening the optimism was dashed. Once again the ugly head of tribal politics intervened. Ed Miliband and Francis Maude stood at the respective dispatch boxes and shouted at each other. It was horrifically depressing. Neither of them in my view did politics any favours, despite the supportive bellowing from their respective benches behind them. The public, to the extent that they were watching, must have thought, “WTF was that” because it certainly wasn’t edifying.
None of the parties has much to boast about here. Each has their list of scandals involving party and MP finances. It is all too easy to get dragged in, as I very well know. Some scandals involve people trying to personally gain while some involve mistakes, or are the result of playing within the rules but not within the spirit of them. All though, involve a further nail in the coffin of the reputation of politics, as a sceptical public do not draw any distinction as to the motives. I know that I certainly regret my part in the succession of stories that have damaged politics.
Now if someone decides to feather their own nest and act corruptly there is probably not much that we can do about it, but there is something that we can do to reduce the risk of other funding scandals. Because the harsh truth is that the current system encourages the parties to push at the boundaries of the legislation passed ostensibly to clean up politics. Just as people perfectly reasonably employ accountants to help them avoid tax, so political parties employ people to maximise the income that they can receive. After all, why should they turn a gift horse away? So loop holes are found and exploited. Legal? Yes. Acceptable? Certainly not to the public.
But politicians do not generally give a stuff, as long as the money is there when they need it. They don’t care where it comes from as long as when they want to produce another leaflet or campaign in response to another polling blip the money is there. And no matter how tight the funds are they always assume that the money is there to employ their favourite advisor irrespective of the absence of relevant skill. They don’t care because it is not their problem – it is the party fundraisers problem. The politicians don’t want to get their hands dirty so they get others to do it for them. Oh they know that they exert pressure for funds to be there, and they know that this means that rules may have to be obeyed in technicality rather than spirit. But they don’t care.
I remember a prominent politician introducing me to a “friend” who wanted to give the Labour Party money. I met them and thought it might be a little “grey” as to whether we could accept the money – legally we probably could but it wouldn’t “smell” right. I went back to the politician and said that it was a non-starter, but they urged me to try and find a way to get the money in, while making it clear that they didn’t want to know any more about it. I took it no further, but the implication was clear – it was OK for me to take a risk but not them.
I was reminded of this when the CPS finally confirmed that there was no case being pursued against me for “donorgate”. As I said at the time, a little crossly it must be said:
“What is not tolerable is that party officials of all political parties should be put in the firing line of the criminal law while elected politicians dive for cover.”
So there is no incentive for politicians to sort the problem. They only really care when it affects them personally. And if it doesn’t then they look skyward and “tut tut” at everyone else’s problems and emerging scandals whilst hoping that the money is there when they need it, and complaining when it isn’t. It is all about self and tribal interest coming first. It is why for instance, they enter into talks on party funding and aren’t really interested in getting a result if it undermines an advantage for them. There is no real incentive to sort the problem out.
On Monday I was quoted by Frances Maude in the Commons as he responded to Ed Miliband. He rightly quoted me as blaming Labour for the collapse of the Hayden Phillips inter-party talks on party finances in 2007. Not only was the quote accurate it was also right. Labour did collapse the talks because it was clear that the Trade Unions were not going to allow a deal to be done that involved capping their affiliation fees. It was pure self-interest.
But to be clear, the Tories were not seriously looking for a deal either. They proposed a cap of £50,000 as it suited their donor profile; they had a lot of people who could donate at that level, pure self-interest again.
But the result of all this, is that we can be certain that there is still a scandal brewing beyond Dinnergate. It might not emerge for a few months or even a couple of years, but it will break and once again politics will be the loser. Whichever party it impacts, the public will have their belief that, politics is corrupt, confirmed.
So David Cameron and Ed Miliband should grow up and stop shouting at each other on this issue. They should accept the Kelly proposals and cap donations; further cap spending (and yes that does include Trade Union donations); reduce the size of their operations; become more efficient; focus on engagement and modestly increase partial state funding. The extra funds won’t be popular but if they stand together they can share the short term pain.
The results could be transformational for our politics but, sadly I suspect that once the dust settles on this scandal, the appetite to do something will wane. Nothing will happen because our politicians are too weak and self-interested to do anything.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party