There is an alternative to murky donations from the super-rich

Published by The Guardian (26th July, 2014)

The funding of political parties has long been a weeping sore in the British body politic, but it is turning increasingly septic. On one side there are disturbing revelations of influential Russians buying access to our most senior politicians. On the other, union chiefs flex their financial muscles and intimidate a leader they placed into power.

Few democracies manage to avoid the drip-drip of financial scandals corroding politics; indeed, Britain’s often appear tame beside the corruption that curses countries such as France, Spain or the United States. But when there has been such devastating loss of faith in the system, we in Britain must consider alternatives to murky backslapping and dubious donations.

It is not just that there is something sordid about rich Russians paying many times the average annual British wage for a game of tennis with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Perhaps these people really do just think they are buying their way into high society, along with sending their children to private schools and attending polo matches. Regardless, it seems more than suspicious to see Putin’s pals attend fundraising dinners and shower money on the Conservatives, joining lobbyists for the likes of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

But the other parties have little reason to crow about the Conservatives’ discomfort. The Liberal Democrats still refuse to hand back £2.4m donated by a convicted fraudster; and just witness Ed Miliband’s supine contortions over saying anything on recent public-sector strikes. If any donor held such sway over the Tories as Unite has over Labour, there would deservedly be an outcry.

Most politicians loathe the time they must spend sucking up to the super-rich and party funders; the wife of one prominent figure told me her stomach would turn behind her fixed smile at those dinners and auctions. For both main parties, the funding dilemma underlines a core weakness: namely, that the Tories are the party of the rich, while Labour is so in thrall to the public sector it can’t be trusted on the economy.

Behind these shenanigans lie more fundamental problems as the traditional two-party system collapses. Party memberships are crashing – the paid-up support the Conservatives had when Cameron became leader has declined by over half, which was itself barely one-fifth of the number when Margaret Thatcher took over the Tories. The average age of members is almost 70.

The 2011 Kelly review saw the solution as more state funding, yet this would only shore up enterprises that are clearly failing. It feels often that the main parties think their history gives them an unassailable right to survive. If so, it’s a misguided belief, with the digital age disrupting politics as it does so many other areas of life. Public contempt would also be fuelled if voters saw more of their taxes going to political parties at a time of spending cuts.

Far more sensible would be to adopt the review’s other key suggestion of a £10,000 cap on individual donations – then throw in a ban on funding from any other sources. For the reason most of these businesses, unions and wealthy people hand over huge sums is to buy influence, along with baubles and titles – all of which is profoundly anti-democratic.

British politics may be comparatively frugal, with parties spending £32m at the last general election compared with the obscene £1.2bn blown on the last US presidential race; but if funds dried up I suspect the electorate could cope with fewer leaflets, posters and spin doctors. Instead, if parties were made to crowdsource their cash, it might force them to find fresh ways to connect with voters – and the consequent search for donations might even end up reinvigorating British politics instead of scarring it with sleazy dinners.


Most recent articles

With the remains of 200 victims, the train of death finally moves out

Published by The Daily Mail (22nd July, 2014) The freight train filled with its grisly cargo of death last night finally pulled out of the station where it had sat for almost two days. While accusations of mistreatment flew around the world, the stench grew in the heat as two more truckloads of remains were […]

The grimmest journey for MH17 victims

Published by The Daily Mail (21st July, 2014) The stench of death is thick in the air as onlookers peer inside a freight train containing the bodies of some 200 victims of the MH17 massacre. The scene, a grim echo of the mechanised slaughter of millions in the Second World War, has been created by […]

Goodbye Hollywood, hello Watford

Published by The Mail on Sunday (20th July, 2014) There was a sprinkling of rain as 250 specially invited guests arrived for the party in the courtyard of the Foreign Office in London’s Whitehall, the waiting media cameras catching a smattering of soberly dressed stars from the worlds of acting, broadcasting, comedy and music. Among […]

The graveyard of desecration

Published by The Mail on Sunday (2oth July, 2014) There was something almost beautiful about the white ribbons tied to stakes as they fluttered in the wind; some sitting amid a sea of golden corn, others poking from clusters of yellow and blue wildflowers. But then you saw that these were the most macabre of […]

Blood on Putin’s hands?

Published by The Daily Mail (18th July 2014) The world may have averted its gaze towards Israel and Gaza, but this week the rumbling warfare in eastern Ukraine has been erupting into something growing daily more dangerous. Three Ukrainian planes have been reported shot down with missiles, scores of soldiers and separatist fighters killed, and […]

Israel sends commandos into Gaza after 50 die in air strikes

Published by The Daily Mail (17th July, 2014) Israel sent ground forces into Gaza yesterday for the first time in its latest offensive, launching an amphibious assault with commandos and shelling the coastline from gunboats offshore. As troops and tanks gathered at the border for a possible land offensive, the air force dropped leaflets telling […]

So familiar, so forlorn and so fantastically self-defeating

Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th July,2014) Olga Neiman was asleep when the missile struck shortly after 9pm, exhausted by the daily exertions of looking after her two-year-old daughter. She was woken by the explosion. The bangs and booms of war have been commonplace in recent days, but she realised instantly this one was […]

The folly of the 0.7% foreign-aid solution

Published by the Wall Street Journal (10th July, 2014) Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki won global applause when he introduced free primary-school education over a decade ago. Who could doubt that the brave policy—backed by tens of millions of dollars in pledges by foreign donors and introduced in support of the United Nations’ millennium goals—would transform […]

Aid corporations dressed in clothing of compassion

Published in The Guardian (8th July, 2014) The president of South Sudan warns that his nation faces terrible famine, with more than a million people fleeing their homes since fighting erupted at the end of last year. And many more families face critical food shortages, according to British aid groups who say they have less than […]

When localism confronts Bonapartism

Published by The Guardian (4th July, 2014) A whiteboard in the corner of Jeremy Hunt’s Whitehall office symbolises a struggle over the soul of modern government. It details “never events” that have taken place that week in hospitals. Three items were written there by Monday morning: a foreign object left in one patient’s body, the […]

One among many, snared by a brutal regime

Published by The Independent on Sunday (29th June, 2014) Yara Sallam was one of the most inspirational activists I met amid the Arab Spring uprisings. As Tahrir Square exploded in one of its many eruptions during 2011, she talked with a rare mixture of idealism, insight and integrity while we walked around Cairo’s chaotic streets […]

Farage and the fruitcakes

Published by The Observer (29th June, 2014) Protest Vote: How Politicians Lost the Plot (Gibson Square) Ten years ago, Tim Newark was shopping near his north London home when he saw a parking warden slap a ticket on a car parked beside his butcher despite the lack of traffic. As a woman rushed outside to […]

Another stupid salvo in Britain’s idiotic war on drugs

Published by The Guardian (26th June, 2014) Khat has been legally imported into this country for 60 years, a mild natural stimulant chewed by a tiny slice of the population at hundreds of community cafes around the country. You may not have noticed these places, since they do not provoke the tension and violence associated […]

Don’t blame foreign players for England’s early exit

Published by The Independent on Sunday (22nd June, 2014) So, we must suffer for another four years: the World Cup is not coming home to the nation that invented the game. We all knew in our hearts that England was not going to grab that golden trophy, but for flickering moments in the first match […]

Tony Blair has moved beyond parody

Published by The Independent (16th June, 2014) Please forgive me. I know we should ignore his latest attention-seeking outburst, like a kind parent might turn their back on a child prone to temper tantrums. But it is hard when he pops up to pollute the airwaves and defile acres of newsprint with silly statements. So, […]

Virunga is saved but Africa’s wildlife is being encircled sliver by sliver

Published by The Guardian (13th June, 2014) It seems incredible anyone could contemplate drilling for oil in Virunga. Not only is this sprawling national park the oldest in Africa, almost the only commendable Belgian colonial legacy in the brutalised Democratic Republic of Congo, but it is also a place of unique biodiversity. The spectacular habitats […]

The NHS must evolve – or face a painful death

Published by The Guardian (2nd June, 2014) Politicians have a poor record of fighting the wars of the past rather than facing up to those of the future. Now we see this again amid panic over Ukip winning a protest election, with corrosive talk over the supposed curse of immigration. The desire of people to come […]

Spinning for Sisi? Blair and Campbell accused of links to regime

Published by The Mail on Sunday (1st June, 2013) Victims of last year’s military coup in Egypt have accused Tony Blair and his former spin doctor Alastair Campbell of assisting a brutal regime responsible for mass killings, torture and the jailing of thousands of innocent people. As the coup leader – a former army spy […]

Beaux-Arts beauty bought back to life

Published by The Independent (30th May, 2014) My first night’s sleep was broken by the clanking of the air conditioning system. The next day, the door-locking mechanism froze and would not let me return to my room. In the restaurant, my starter of oyster tempura arrived after a chunky main course, while I was placed […]

The curse of coalition

Published in The Independent on Sunday (25th May, 2014) The night before the coalition was formed, a senior member of the Tory team stormed back from a critical meeting with potential partners. He looked downcast, telling me he was convinced the Liberal Democrats had double-crossed them in a deal to enter government with Labour. ‘Nice […]


Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: