Magazine article The Spectator

Funding Management

Magazine article The Spectator

Funding Management

Article excerpt

'IT seems to a lot of people,' said Mr Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, `that the [Labour] party is more or less abandoning its roots and ... is almost up for sale to the highest bidder.' Part of what he was complaining about, of course, is that Mr Blair has been trying selectively to replace the party's union paymasters (people like Mr Morris) with others more to his taste; to that extent, Mr Morris's complaint can be discounted.

But when he went on to say that `the Prime Minister has got to get a grip of this because incrementally it can be extremely damaging to the government', he was saying no more than is already clearly the case: `Labour sleaze' has become a real problem which is not going away. In the world of New Labour, `getting a grip' usually means thinking up a new spin; and over recent months the party has been deploying what is - until you start to look more closely at it - quite a convincing defensive argument.

The government believes it can best defend itself by refusing to fight particular accusations as they crop up, and by saying instead that (1) it would be absurd as well as impracticable to exclude donors to political parties from all contact with and influence over government; (2) that the kind of accusations of corruption in which Mr Blair has been wallowing this year are therefore as inevitable as they are unjust; and (3) that the only way of avoiding them for the future is by the means of state funding for political parties.

But this all-purpose defence won't wash. At the time of the curious affair of Mr Blair's letter to the Romanian Prime Minister about his friend Mr Lakshmi Mittal, the novelist and newspaper columnist Robert Harris (once a New Labour supporter, or at least a friend of Peter Mandelson) used a series of striking images. It was, he concluded, `acting like a barium meal on the body politic, showing us how influence passes through the system: money courted, favours returned, interests conflated, misinformation spread. First Ecclestone, then the Hindujas, then Enron and Andersen, and now Mittal: it is beginning to look like more than a mere series of coincidences.' Earlier, he quoted another compelling simile, used by the former Tory Cabinet minister John Biffen on the fall of Margaret Thatcher: `You know those maps on the Paris Metro that light up when you press a button to go from A to B? Well, it was like that. Someone pressed a button and the connections lit up.'

Though examples of the phenomenon seem to have dried up recently, we have not, I predict, seen the end of them, for that is not the nature of this particular beast. One possible connection that could now light up along with all the others may well be that between commercial favours granted to the biotech industry (together with a good sprinkling of peerages and other such baubles) and the parallel process of biotech industry funds paid into the coffers of the Labour party.

Leave on one side the question of Britain's unique legislation (with all its attendant commercial possibilities) permitting so-called `therapeutic cloning', which Mr Blair's ally President Bush has banned on moral grounds. Bio-ethics is a subject about which there are different and honestly held views - though it is worthwhile to mention in passing that, just as Mr Blair was recently at a loss to describe his own political philosophy, so he approaches the ethical questions involved in cloning by saying, in effect, that he doesn't see what morality has to do with it. `Our conviction about what is natural and what is right,' he told the European Bioscience Conference in November 2000, `should not inhibit the role of science . …

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