By Richards, Steve
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 126, No. 4360
Maybe I am being naive, but I am sure a donation to Labour Party funds was not a factor in Tony Blair's U-turn on tobacco sponsorship. I doubt whether even Bernie Ecclestone's [pounds]1 million bought him access to the Prime Minister, but Blair is anyway an admirer of entrepreneurs and seems to spend a lot of time talking to them. Not all the captains of industry who visit Downing Street, surely, forked out for May's landslide.
Instead Blair's decision to exempt Formula 1 from the tobacco ban reflects some of his other political characteristics. One is a capacity to be swayed more by the arguments of business people than most other groups, not least the trade unions, who must view the access granted to business leaders with envy, or in some cases, fury. Another characteristic is to take decisions without consulting widely, presenting ministers, in this case health ministers,with a fait accompli.
Then there is his desire to implement reform that is practical and achievable, rather than aim for the most radical outcome, which turns out to be less workable when the details are explored. Blair almost certainly made the U-turn because he thought the original policy would cost jobs, while failing to prevent television viewers being exposed to tobacco advertising. I happen to think this was a mistaken policy reversal, but it is an illustration of Blair the cautious politician, not of a Prime Minister calculating that, since Ecclestone's loot helped him into Downing Street, now was the time to reciprocate.
But in the current political climate it does not matter what I think, what Blair really thought, or what anyone else thinks. For it is not provable that there was no link between a donation and a policy. This is where the view of Lord Nolan's successor, Sir Patrick Neill, is so significant. Sir Patrick does not imply Blair is guilty, either, but he does suggest that his view, like mine, yours, and Blair's, is irrelevant. He says: "I make no criticism of Labour for originally receiving a donation from Mr Ecclestone, but in the light of the changed circumstances I stress the importance of those in public life being judged not only by the reality, but also by the appearance."
Those final words are the most powerful argument I have heard for state funding for political parties. Sir Patrick is surely right to argue that the "appearance" of a link between donations and policies can undermine the standing of politicians, whatever the reality.
At this point I may be even more naive than I was at the beginning, but I believe the link between funding and policies under the Conservative government was always greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt that the Conservatives' lacklustre campaign in 1997 benefited from donations from several dodgy sources, to put it mildly. But I am far from certain that some government policies were shaped by the state of finances at Conservative Central Office.
To some extent, Labour is being hoist with its own petard. It exploited every opportunity to expose the dubious sources of Tory funding, happy to leave in the air the implication that Major and Thatcher formed some of their policies with donors in mind. …