Marx famously said that history repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. If so, what is the appropriate aphorism as yet another tawdry party funding scandal explodes onto our front pages: Party funding history repeats itself first time as tragedy, second time as farce, twenty fifth time as a badly translated repeat of On the Buses shown on a flickering black and white TV in a mini-cab office in Tajikistan?
All thinking politicians know what has to be done; worse, they know that sooner or later it will be done, yet they are too self-interested and craven to do it themselves. The deal which Tony Blair and David Cameron nearly did in the wake of the cash for honours allegations (but which was sabotaged by vested interest in the Labour Party) , the recommendations of the Phillips Inquiry in 2007, the Committee on Standards in Public Life last November; all came up with basically the same package:
* A cap on individual and corporate donations below the level at which it can credibly be claimed that money will buy influence
* This cap to apply to trade unions - which can continue to collect and pass on individual dues from their members but whose members must make a positive and explicit decision to donate to a political party.
* Some additional state funding plus incentives to the public to donate, most obviously offering the same tax breaks on political donations as are provided for charitable gifts.
There are important details to be agreed within this package. For example, the Conservatives, having lots of quite rich supporters, would prefer a £50k cap while Labour and the Lib Dems would prefer one slightly lower. But it is not the details which stop reform, it is the inadequacies of our political leaders.
The mainstream media also play a role by winding people up over an increase in public funding; ‘how’ they say ‘can taxpayers be expected to fund politicians when we don’t have enough money to pay for core public services like the care of older people?’ This is a facile argument: first, under existing arrangements the taxpayer already pays for a substantial proportion of the spending for opposition parties; second, the extra funds needed to enable parties to operate without big donations is trivial as a proportion of public spending; third, the public already has to pay for things which it finds distasteful – for example, food and other living costs for imprisoned violent criminals, redundancy payments and pensions for public sector workers who have had to resign on grounds of incompetence, health care for people who ignore medical advice and drink, smoke and eat buckets of chips.
We do all this as the price we pay for living in a reasonably free and decent society. Isn't a party funding system which facilitates democratic engagement and makes corruption less likely also an important part of a healthy society?
It is shameful that we haven't lanced the boil on party funding. Today Ed Miliband is having his fun but sooner or later he will be in the spotlight as a trade union leader tries publicly to blackmail him into one policy or another. When inevitably yet another scandal erupts, our politicians deserve all the opprobrium they receive.
Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Foresight Lead)
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