Tag Archives: party-funding

Party Funding: easy on the hubris folks!

For the past four years, I’ve spent much of my job working on party funding related issues. This has given me a rather apolitical outlook when it comes to funding scandals.

“Abrahamsgate” and “Wendygate” are no exceptions. Don’t get me wrong; the decision of Peter Watt, apparently his predeccessors and almost certainly a lot of others within the party to break the law in covering up the identity of a major party donor is a real scandal. With the Wendy Alexander debacle, a similar dismissive attitude about the law seems to have been in place. But no party has clean hands, least of all the Conservatives who continue to use unincorporated associations to legally protect the anonymity of their donors. It may be legal, but they are doing exactly the same thing on a daily basis, only less hamfistedly.

It is really hard to see how some of the smaller donations which are getting journalists so excited at the moment have that much significance. £950 here or £2,000 there is not as much of an issue as the fact that, for example, the £306,000 in donations that were reported late by the main parties in the last quarter alone. The fact is, none of the main party’s systems are that good and they could all do with being improved (admittedly, Labour’s seems to be in a bigger mess than either the Tories or Lib Dems).

But if the central party machine’s systems are not that perfect, what about – for example – the campaign teams of leadership candidates? Most of the scandals that are hitting the headlines at the moment concern the Labour Deputy Leadership and the Scottish Leadership contests (or non-contest in the latter case). I hope that Team Clegg and Team Huhne are making extra sure that all their donations are above board and that they are registering every single one of them; it could so easily happen to us.

Plaid bid to subvert the RPA fails

Plaid Cymru are crying foul over the BBC’s decision not to throw the Representation of the People Act out of the window and allow them thousands of pounds of state-subsidised advertising.

All I can say to that is: ha ha. If Plaid should be angry at anyone, it is the Welsh Rugby grounds who signed a contract that they surely knew they had no ability to fulfill.

Guido takes on the establishment

Guido Fawkes has been given a spot on Newsnight. He asks some perfectly legitimate questions, and gets some perfectly legitimate answers, but both sides appear to be missing the point.

Ultimately, it is healthy in a democracy to have people like Guido sticking their fingers in the air at the establishment. They often go off down a cul de sac, they often find themselves doing the establishment’s job for them (cf. his work with Ed Balls to screw over Colin Challen), but they allow us a valuable corrective.

Equally, we need political correspondents like Nick Robinson, who take it upon themselves to explain rather than expose. They often pull their punches when they shouldn’t, and in the interests of ‘balance’ often go too far in terms of presenting nonsense as legitimate points of view, but they nonetheless perform a valuable service. To be fair, I get the impression that Robinson understands this, but I don’t think Guido does.

Thirdly, and a point that neither side seems interested in, we need parties and politicians an unedited platform from which to communicate directly with the people. That probably does not mean £10,000 incumbancy allowances of the sort MPs voted for themselves today (makes Hayden Phillips’ money-per-vote look fantastic in comparison, despite its deep flaws), but if we don’t have it, we’re left with Guido’s bile and Robinson’s sang-froid.

Credible Politicians

I was on Five Live’s Julian Worricker programme briefly on Sunday, making my nomination for most credible politician as part of their Political Awards (the piece was on at around 12pm, so about 2 hours in if you want a listen).

My nomination was for David Howarth. I have to admit, I struggled with this category (cynicism can be quite disabling at times), but I nominated David because of his work in exposing the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Specifically, I interpreted ‘credible’ to mean a good Parliamentarian.

It was a shame therefore that much of the discussion on the programme was concerned with linking ‘credibility’ with the idea of being a good constituency MP, i.e. doing casework, listening and representing constituent’s concerns. The rise of the community-focussed MP has gone hand in hand with the diminution of local politics. As local government has been centralised and sidelined, so MPs have adopted the role of super-caseworker at the expense, it seems to me, of actively taking an interest in the work of Parliament itself. This has been helped by the anti-politics prejudices of the media, which has a confused notion of wanting to see MPs being both the proxies of the communities they represent while at the same time berating them for being mindless automatons.

The problem is, no individual can ever represent the diverse range of views to be found in even the smallest of rural constituency. Yes, I doubt that even the Western Isles has a Fascist Hive Mind – and the fact that it’s a hotly contested two-way marginal would tend to support that view. So, representing the community’s view is simply an impossibility. What we have instead is, at best, an MP that works to represent the views of a vocal minority.

And yes, I do accept that the Lib Dems share a large amount of responsibility for this sort of corruption of parliamentary politics. I don’t blame ‘community politics’ a concept which, at least in the Greaves and Lishman sense, I strongly support. I do however blame the way this idea has become the abiding strategy of the party and has influenced a new generation of politicians, particularly people like Grant Shapps. The key problem is, what is a perfectly laudable aim of involving people more in decisions that affect them has, via our political system, become a zero-sum race to the lowest common denominator.

There are two policy outcomes we ought to consider about this. The first is, but of course!, proportional representation (specifically STV in multi-member constituencies). No-one would advocate creating a system which abolished constituencies altogether. Indeed, my own preference would be for just 2 or 3 member constituencies in the Commons. Even just having 2 member constituencies would have a massive impact in terms of bringing an interest in political principle back into the Commons.

The second, more controversially, would be a massive curtailment of how much MP’s can spend on carrying out their constituency work. This has grown massively in recent years, yet all it does is replicate (undermine even) local government and the customer relations side of public services. Worst, it has created incumbency protection into our system, giving MPs a platform which they can use to help their re-election campaigns.

I’m a supporter of state funding of political parties (or at least incentive based mechanisms such as matched funding), and I’ve noticed that many of the critics of such proposals are in fact broadly supportive of existing funding mechanisms; nopublicfunding describes the existing financial relationship as “sensible and necessary“. The more I’ve debated with such people, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the status quo does indeed need rethinking. Apart from anything else, it would stop the hypocrisy of politicians setting up Chinese walls between their constituency and partisan work.

A Grand Left Wing Conspiracy

Nigel Farage is going around telling anyone who’ll listen that there is an (presumably euro-philic) establishment conspiracy to shut down the Electoral CommissionUK Independence Party, based on the ‘trivial’ fact that they have been in receipt of hundreds of thousands of pounds of illegal donations.

Far be it for me to gloat. Well, okay, I can’t resist. Because the truth of the matter is that all parties have been sweating cobs on this issue for months now. But for all that, none of the other parties have fallen foul of such an open-and-shut case as this one.

My own feeling on the Michael Brown case, which I said back when it was first raised to the Lib Dem Federal Executive’s attention, was that it would have been eminently avoidable if we had simply refused to accept the donation unless he gave the money as a personal donation and registered to vote in the UK. The fact that he refused to do so should have raised alarm bells (or at least bigger ones). But at the very least it is undeniable, and accepted by the Electoral Commission, that Cowley Street worked hard to ensure that it was legal. If it is eventually declared illegal it will be because the donation languished in a grey area that no-one can claim was obvious. The problem was, at the time and under pressure, there were too many unknown unknowns. So, while I might question the political decision to accept money off the twerp, I’ve never questioned that the party was scrupulous in how it dealt with the cash.

By contrast, the UKIP case suggests that they weren’t taking the most basic steps in confirming that major donations were, in fact, legal. UKIP, of all parties, would be the first to cry foul if a party accepted money from a foreign donor by some backdoor route or, worse, gross negligence. If Alan Bown was such an upstanding British citizen, how come he couldn’t even bring himself to vote for the very party he was bankrolling?

Anyway, here are a few quotes from the UKIP website that might serve to provide Mr Farrago a bit of perspective:

16 April 2006:

Financially the Conservative Party is a mess. Today less than six per cent of the Tory Party’s money comes from subscriptions and they therefore feel the need to bring in the high rollers. Legally donations cannot come from foreigners and have to be public, whereas loans can be anonymous and come from anyone.

However, the names of lenders were given to the Electoral Commission, and we put a public interest inquiry in to reveal those names. Worryingly for Dave it is looking like these loans were on such good rates the lack of interest payments could easily be defined as gifts in kind, numbering up to hundreds of thousands of pounds and thus donations. It was when he was
questioned about our request that he lost his cool. The dodge he and Blair have come up with to excuse their possibly illegal acts is to say, “we cannot be trusted to raise cash legally ourselves, the only answer is that you, the taxpayer, will have to subsidise our activities”. This is wrong. The only benefit for party leaders is it gives them taxpayers’ cash with which to reward cronies and buy silence from internal foes.

23 September 2005:

The Electoral Commission last night confirmed it was conducting an inquiry into whether donations from 5th Avenue Partners had complied with laws banning political parties from taking foreign money.

If they find against the Lib Dems the party will be forced to return the money, triggering a financial crisis.

Michael Brown, the owner of the company, told The Times yesterday that he felt “totally let down” by the party.

He said it had failed to make more than cursory checks before taking his company’s money. “If the people who handled my donation were elected to run the economy, I would not be happy — it would be disastrous.”

In correspondence with party chiefs, copies of which he has given to this newspaper, Mr Brown complains that his company has been subjected to media scrutiny and the donation to the possibility of legal challenge.

“As a donor, I rely on the party to verify that the donation is proper. In the case of the donation made by my company, very little due diligence was undertaken,” he said.

Ner ner ner-ner ner!

Chariddy begins at House?

More opinionpollballs in the Guardian today. Apparently, the Great British Public wants MPs to do a statutory 7 hours a week for chariddy.

If I ever acquire a John Hemming-style fortune, I’m going to entertain myself by commissioning banal opinion polls. For example, one thing I’m dying to know is whether the British public prefers kittens that are ‘hideous’, ‘ok-looking’, ‘quite cute’ or ‘very cute’.

In all seriousness, this poll is indicative of exactly the sort of mindless anti-politics that is all too pervasive in modern Britain. If every MP in the country did do 7 hours voluntary service each week, the first thing people would complain about is why they are no longer working 50-60 hours a week representing their constituents. It’s based on a complete ignorance of what MPs do and is designed to take a potshot rather than actually inform debate.

Most MPs I know in fact take it for granted that they should work on a variety of charitable and community-based projects. But charity fun-runs are no substitute for scrutinising legislation and holding government to account.

Frankly, I think we’ve already gone too far in terms of turning MPs into mobile Citizens Advice Bureaus and case-worker-extraordinaires. Apart from anything else, I suspect it is one of the main reasons why MPs have been so poor at blocking centralisation. If you devolve too much power, then the ability of MPs to manfully jump in and solve all their constituents’ problems would be severely limited. Instead, people would pay more attention further down the foodchain, something which would help both local politics and service delivery.

Throughout the debate on party funding in recent months, one of the most oft-cited arguments is that political parties already get public funding via their expenses allowances. Personally, I’m coming around to the conclusion that this is one of the more pernicious forms of state support, responsible for both distracting MPs away from their real job and undermining other politicians further down the foodchain. Other forms of party funding, in my view, would be far less pernicious (although I notice a lot of opponents of increased party funding are all for the status quo).

Getting it backwards

A glaring bit of nonsense in an otherwise sensible article by Simon Jenkins today:

One of many reasons for not subsidising national parties is that it will further encourage them to ignore the public and live in the lap of the national press.

I note that he says ‘national parties’ specifically and not ‘political parties’ more generally (i.e. he seems to accept a different case can be made for local politics). But leaving that aside for one minute, and the ongoing argument that it depends on what kind of ‘subsidy’ you’re talking about (giving political parties money every time it engages with a member of the public would surely encourage it to engage with as many people as possible), this is illogical in the extreme.

The tabloid press exists because it flatters the prejudices of the general public. It is very much ‘in tune’ with the public. Therefore, if political parties were thrown into their arms, far from ignoring the electorate, they would be indulging it.

It’s a common fallacy to assume that something that you think is common sense is a view shared by the majority, and that the only reason it isn’t public policy is because politicians are wicked or ‘out of touch’. You here it all the time from environmentalists, constitutional reformers and teenagers (all three of whom I’ve spent most of my political career hanging out with).

The problem with our political system is not that the majority of the public don’t get the majority of what they want most of the time – they do. The real problem is that the system doesn’t allow for minority or dissenting views to be heard with any real force. A society which lacks meaningful self-criticism finds the process of change extremely difficult, even when it is neccessary. As such, we are beginning to resemble more of a closed society than an open one.

Democracy, for me, is about more than the majority getting its own way: that’s mob rule. Democracy has to be about deliberation and hearing all sides of the argument before rushing to conclusions. Our great challenge is introducing systems – and a civic culture – that enable that to happen.