Perspective: Who Wants to Be a Labour Millionaire?; Chris Game Wonders Whether There Is a Better Way of Funding Political Parties

The Birmingham Post (England), January 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

Perspective: Who Wants to Be a Labour Millionaire?; Chris Game Wonders Whether There Is a Better Way of Funding Political Parties


Byline: Chris Game

So, Ecclestonegate II is narrowly avoided. After three days of Labour procrastination, if not downright prevarication, we're vouchsafed the identity of Tony's latest multi-millionaire donor crony: the publicity-shy publisher Lord Hamlyn.

He's apparently seriously ill, has little need of undue governmental influence, and already has his Labour peerage. Nothing to worry about there, then.

I wonder. Is this really how we want our democracy funded - by a handful of plutocrats who prefer to buy their way on to Ministerial advisory boards, quangos, or even into government via the House of Lords, rather than go through the tedious business of getting themselves elected to anything?

It used to be a largely Conservative phenomenon - Lords McAlpine and Ashcroft, Asil Nadir, Al Fayed, Gerald Ronson, et al.

But, with trade unions now funding barely a third of Labour's spending, compared to two-thirds in the 1980s, it is the People's Party that is frantically recruiting and ennobling millionaires to fill the gap: Lords Levy, Sainsbury, Simon, Gavron, Haskins, Bernstein, Grantchester.

You may not recognise all the names, but between them they could easily finance Labour's General Election campaign, even if national party spending weren't being restricted to pounds 20 million.

Indeed, Labour announced pounds 4 million in new donations yesterday - pounds 2 million from former Tory supporter Christopher Ondaatje, who is to join the Labour Party,and pounds 2 million from Lord Sainsbury.

Yet it was Labour that used, in manifesto after manifesto, to favour the transparency of state funding of political parties. Indeed, it was the new Labour Government that set up a committee of inquiry specifically to examine the issue. Its findings were disturbing.

'Party organisation is weak nationally, and at local level generally exists on a pitifully inadequate scale of accommodation, equipment, trained staff and resources.'

'Membership fees are low, fundraising takes up too much time, and the level of political activity is far below that needed to gain the interest of the general body of the electorate, especially the young.'

It was damaging to the public standing of the parties, and perhaps to democracy itself, to rely too heavily on institutional funding from business companies or trade unions. The most obvious solution, therefore, was 'a modest injection of state aid'.

The recommendation was not unanimous, but the Committee was agreed on the need 'for speedy action', given the parties' serious financial difficulties.

Unfortunately the action, far from being speedy, was non-existent. For the 'new' (not New) Labour Government in question was Harold Wilson's in 1974, and the Committee was that chaired by Lord Houghton, not the more recent one under Lord Neill. More than a quarter-century later, Houghton's description of grassroots party organisation will be recognisable to every local politician. Nor had the legal position changed.

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