Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Shocking appalling scandals

The reaction of the British public to the latest party funding scandal
Let's see if I can get the timeline right. I suppose the first scandal was the allegation that donating large amounts of money to Labour could get you included on the honours list. Next was the revelation that MPs habitually treated their expenses as a way of topping up their income. Then we heard that tabloid journalists had used means both fair and dodgy to pursue stories, including breaching the privacy of celebrities. And now we hear that donating large amounts of money to the Tories gets you dinner with the PM.
I wonder what's next? A massive expose of the fact that away sides don't get penalties at Old Trafford? A searing revelation that England don't play spin all that well in the sub-continent? Nine page pull-outs in the Sundays pointing out that the Liberal Democrats use entirely different election literature in the south of the country to that used in the north?
The common feature of recent political scandals is that everybody even tangentially connected with politics (to the extent of reading the political pages in the newspaper) knew already that this was how things worked. Tabloid newspapers have been opening people's mail and going through their bins for a century. MPs expenses were deliberately jacked up instead of their salary back in the 1980s. And party funding has been a constant embarrassment since the days when Lloyd George knew my father. Literally none of this should have been a surprise to anybody.
When it comes to the latest scandal - that Tory donors were promised access to the PM in return for properly large donations - I really don't see the iniquity. Let's take it back to basics. How do political parties get funding? Either by personal donation, or from the state. If we're not going to switch to state funding (and we shouldn't) why should people give money to political parties? The ideal sort of donor is one who's politically closely aligned with your party, and therefore gives money out of a sense of patriotic duty, asking for nothing whatsoever in return. These chaps aren't so thick on the ground, however, that a funding strategy can be built around them. You need to be offering something in return.
Tony Blair's selling point was that giving money to the Labour Party was a way of proving what an upright moral citizen you were, and that you never know, but the more moral and upright you get, the greater your chances of getting some sort of handle to your name, know what I mean? Wink wink. And in any event, Labour had a way of looking after its donors - it was a mutually beneficial relationship.
A goodly proportion of Labour's scandals in office were related to the ever-pressing need for donations. And Labour have always had the comforting back-up of the Trades Unions, usually prepared to stump up the overwhelming majority of Labour's money, all in return for such minor favours as determining how Labour MPs vote, and who should be leader of the Party. It was Blair's attempts to diversify away from this that got him into trouble.
Without this back-up, the Tories have traditionally fallen back on business and the City of London for its funding. And since there's no obligation for such people to give money to the Tories, there has to be something in the way of a quid pro quo. I know it's an unpopular view, but personally, I thought that the non-explicit sale of honours wasn't a bad way of doing things. Peerages aside, all the honour system does is provide a snobbish sense of social superiority at practically zero cost to the state.
But if that's not allowed (and, to be fair, it definitely isn't) then surely the least harmful inducement that could be offered to donors is facetime with party celebrities (such as they are)? It's not as if Cameron is going to change party policy in return for a donation (although there is precedent I suppose). As Paul Goodman says, what will happen is that Cameron will be charming and gracious and Prime Ministerial at the donor, who will go home suffused with a sense of his own importance and status, and tens of thousands of pounds lighter in the pocket.
If you ban personal access in return for funding, you are pretty much making private fund-raising impossible. And, unless you're happy to see the death of the political party system in the UK, you will then have to implement state funding of the parties. And that will end the party funding scandals right? No, it won't. And since party co-operation on the reform of party funding is all but impossible (Labour won't countenance anything that endangers Union funding, Tories won't cripple their ability to raise money unless that Union funding is similarly shacked) we may as well get used to this sort of horrifying scandal cropping up from time to time - regardless of who's in power.

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