Last night, Dispatches finally aired their special programme on the sleazy, behind the scenes world of how our political parties are funded. The whole thing had been heavily trailed in the Telegraph over the last few weeks. Actually, nothing about it shocked me at all and in fact, what it really demonstrated more than anything else is public naivety about how funding of political parties actually works.
Here are some of the basics on the rules regarding party donations. Any donation lower than £7,500 you do not need to declare, if it is the only donation made to a party within one financial year (so you can’t just make fifteen £7k donations, for instance and not declare any of them). Informing someone that these are the rules, in other words simply explaining the system, is not against the law. If you really want to cover your ass, you simply tell the Electoral Commission about the donation anyway – you’ve over disclosed and the information is still not put into the public domain, which is all the donor cares about. Telling people that members of their family can donate money too if they want is not illegal either.
Last year, the Lib Dems actually pushed forward legislation to lower these donation limits in terms of disclosure. The reforms were roundly lambasted by large sections of the third sector and by the whole of the Labour Party who described it as “the gagging bill”. What the public actually wants from the system, I’m not exactly sure of.
Political parties have to get money from somewhere to exist. There are rules around this, actually fairly strict ones by international standards (look to the US if you want to be really horrified). But we will never get “cash for access and/or influence” out of the system completely unless we’re willing to pay for it. In other words, political parties get state funding and are then not allowed to take outside donations. Simple, solves the problem. But I don’t want to fund that swine, you say. Can’t they just stick to the rules? To repeat what I said earlier, they are sticking to the rules – if you were horrified by Dispatches last night and the Telegraph stories these past few weeks, it is the rules themselves that horrify you. Well, I’m not paying for politicians and that’s final. Great – the politicians certainly don’t care. They have a system that works perfectly fine for them, thanks.
The Tories will never want to change the system because they benefit disproportionately from it (more people donate to the Conservative Party than any of the others for reasons I’ll leave you to puzzle out for yourselves); Labour would find it almost impossible to do so because the unions hate the idea (that’s their power gone in a flash). So it’s all an academic discussion, really.
But mock outrage winds me up anyway. Either demand the system changes or live with the sleaze. It’s your call, but pick one or the other, please.