Another big money political scandal: can Lib Dems force Tories & Labour to take it seriously this time?

Let’s remember the words of David Cameron two years ago:

… there is another big issue that we can no longer ignore. It is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money. I’m talking about lobbying – and we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out.

Now let’s fast-forward to the words of the Tories’ leading fundraiser (until last night):

“Two hundred grand to 250 is premier league… what you would get is, when we talk about your donations the first thing we want to do is get you at the Cameron/Osborne dinners… You will be able to ask him [Mr Cameron] practically any question you want. If you’re unhappy about something, we will listen to you and put it into the policy committee at number 10 – we feed all feedback to the policy committee.”
Peter Cruddas

None of this is a surprise — to politicians or the public. Money talks in public life. Why? Well, it’s those two simple words: vested interests. As I noted just six weeks ago:

In reality, it’s hard to see anything but the tiniest incremental reforms coming forward because of the vested interests of the Tories and Labour: the Tories reliant on a few super-rich private individuals; Labour in hock to their trade union paymasters. Currently only the Lib Dems have nothing to lose from the negotiations, though of course we’ve not been without our own problems when a millionaire flashes his wallet.

But for now the blue-and-red politicians have freely admitted that this is an issue on which they simply cannot move forward. The only way to suck vested interests out of politics is to cap donations, limiting the scope of any one individual or organisation to influence policy. But to do that would level the electoral playing field. The last time that happened — the televised leaders’ debates in 2010 — the Tory/Labour duopoly got the fright of their lives. They’re not going to re-visit that nightmare voluntarily.

Not voluntarily, no. But let’s hope the latest funding scandal will, this time, force the vested interests in both Labour and the Tories to take action now. Christopher Kelly’s report last November offers if not a blueprint at least a starting point. Now’s the moment for Nick Clegg to ensure Westminster’s symbiotic relationship with big money is held to account.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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20 Comments

  • Part funding needs reform, but the only way that is going to happen is if all parties admit their past dodgy dealing instead of trying to make partisan political points while condemning everybody else.

    The Lib Dems were funded by monies obtained by fraud, they are no better than the other parties.

    PS Unions are not ‘vested interests’ – they are overt interests, whose reason for being overlaps considerably with the Labour party’s.

  • Simon McGrath 25th Mar '12 - 12:26pm

    I wonder if there are any problem for which Geoffrey does not think the answer is more state spending ?

    Of course we should have cap on donations but why on earth should the taxpayers make up the difference? Our Party works perfectly well without big donations – so could the others.

  • Keith Browning 25th Mar '12 - 1:35pm

    The system is basically corrupt and run by vested interests. Why can’t Postman Pat or Mrs Goggins have the same access to the people who run the country as the head of Barclays or News International. If I phoned up to invite the Prime Minister or even the Deputy Prime minister for lunch to invite them to discuss ‘my world’ are they likely to say yes. I think unlikely.

    The country is crying out for a balanced transport policy that serves the whole country but no it is in the hands of the oil companies and construction companies.

    The High Street is dying because they are now owned by Investment Companies and would rather leave shops empty than charge an affordable rent and this leaves an open goal for the supermarket chains.

    Our food supply chain is dominated by a tiny number of businesses at the retail and wholesale level.

    They all gained their dominance by influencing government, and rarely with ‘sensible ideas’ but almost always with a financial or commerical reason.

    We are about to witness the biggest corporate show on earth – The Olympic Games – I cringe just to think of the patronage that is going on there.

    STOP these people having access to the decision makers, or perhaps even think about giving the rest of us a chance to influence them on an equal basis.

  • Simon McGrathMar 25 – 12:26 pm……………………………..Our Party works perfectly well without big donations – so could the others……………..

    Be careful. Mike Brown, in 2005, donated £2.4 million to the Liberal Democrats. The party was exonerated from any wrongdoing but, before we knew of his activities, we took his millions.

  • “you might not like state funding as a solution but you do not come up with an alternative.”

    If you feel something needs to be done to level the playing field, why not cap what political parties are allowed to spend? I’m sure the electorate would much prefer that to taxpayers’ money being spent on political campaigning. Of course it won’t happen, for obvious reasons.

  • Richard Dean 25th Mar '12 - 4:38pm

    The fact is that political leaders need access to influentail people including wealthy ones, and vice versa, and it would be very wasteful not to charge for that access. I therefore suggest that the way forward is to develop explicit rules, including on minutes and standard charges, and about discounts for charities and others. The money raised should go, of course, to the exchequer if the accessee is in government.

  • Simon McGrathMar 25 – 12:26 pm……………………………..Our Party works perfectly well without big donations – so could the others……………..

    It’s this kind of thinking that will ensure the LibDems will never be the party of government. (rather than in government.)
    Rigorously enforced state funding would ensure the end of a disparity such as occurred in the first week of the 2010 General Election campaign when the Conservatives received over £2 million in donations (revised upwards from £1.45 million), whilst the Lib Dems received just £20,000

  • Giselle Williams 25th Mar '12 - 7:21pm

    Whilst I abhor the sheer corruption from all parties, I do think your article is bordering on the “bit rich” in view of the LibDem’s donor, starting with Alpha, who allegedly will benefit in due course from the Tory/Orange Book’s give away of the NHS for England. I don’t expect this post to stay up, similar to my others, but it is on topic and is not illegal or defammatory in any way, so I can but hope!

  • Maybe the LibDems can lecture the other [rotten] parties when they return the £2.4M donated to them by a crook.

  • Barry George 25th Mar '12 - 10:09pm

    Another big money political scandal: can Lib Dems force Tories & Labour to take it seriously this time?

    I am certainly not the first in the queue to stand up for the Labour party but what on earth brought you to include Labour in the headline ? This is a Tory scandal, They are accused of permitting access to the Prime Minister and influence over policy to those who donate.

    This is an opportunity to show the Lib Dems as the honest party and for senior Lib Dems to come forward and insist on an INDEPENDENT inquiry.

    No party is immune from accusations of donation irregularity as well this party knows.

    But at least the Labour party have called for an independent investigation and not an internal cover up !

    Why is there silence from our MP’s ?

    Why do we always seem to miss the boat when it comes to resonating with public opinion ?

    Tuition fees, The NHS , The granny Tax etc etc … We are continually on the wrong side of public opinion and we repeatedly shoot the party in the foot. Silence on this issue will be viewed as complicity in the cover up of a disgusting attempt to sell input into UK Government policy. How do we know that others before have not paid and been given the same access. On the 50p tax rate or the NHS or any other issue you care to think of.

    Please stop making fools of yourselves by trying to stick a purely Conservative bit of dog poo onto a purely (this time) innocent Labour party.

    I know we want to blame Labour for everything , including the world wide financial crisis but it really is unwise to continue to attack the Labour Party two years into Government. If you haven’t noticed Labour are polling 7/8 points clear in the VI polls so the strategy clearly isn’t working.

    Please Liberals, stand up and say what we would do, not what Labour or the Conservatives would or should do.

    The party should be distancing itself from the potentially criminal (if anyone really did pay for access and policy) actions of the Tory Party…

    I hear Labour calling for a fair and Independent inquiry. I hear the Conservatives calling for a quick cover up..

    I hear nothing from the Lib Dems …. why ?

  • ……………………….Please stop making fools of yourselves by trying to stick a purely Conservative bit of dog poo onto a purely (this time) innocent Labour party…………….

    Agreed! I noted that the first official Conservative response to THEIR scandal tried to include the Labour/Unions link as if that was any sort of an excuse. It ill behoves us to do the same.

  • Tactically I would like the Lib Dems to get a little more state spending. I’d be either dumb or dishonest to make out that this would stop big money from Unions or Business interests streaming into parties and more worryingly, individual politicians.

  • Whats truly idstrubing is that the Daily Mail is providing a better sense of outrage today than any commentator of the Lib Dems…

  • Perhaps it’s just as well Nick is in S. Korea; no-one is chasing him for a quote. Francis Maude (BBC Today) came over with the same sincerity as a ‘snake oil salesman'; why, oh why, do politicians never learn.

  • Keith Browning 26th Mar '12 - 9:15am

    ‘a week is a long time in politics’.

    Whoever said that wasn’t wrong..!!

  • Simon, you are being massively unrealistic, expecting that Lib Dems can compete with (especially) the Tories on so little money. If all donations are made on a purely voluntary basis, it forces any party into a trap of having to endorse populist policies. Sometimes, on the environment, on crime, on immigration (I could go on and on), a party has to come up with policy ideas which don’t fit with easy populism, and they have to have the resources to fight for them. On this ground alone, there is a need for some mandated (probably public) funds to assist this process.

    There is also the issue that if money comes from rich individuals, it is unlikely that they will back policies involving great public action. We need money and resources to back that kind of thinking too, otherwise we cut off a large potential for useful policy actions. And despite your views, Simon, Liberal and Lib Dem policy history has included large swathes of ideas involving the public sector, at international, national, devolved and local levels. Drifting to some neoliberal nirvana, as you seem to envisage is not an option that many in the party, nor many of the public would see as sensible.

    How do we square the circle between the public’s distrust of political parties – intensified by Lib Dem actions over the last couple of years or so – and therefore unwillingness to fund them, and the need for democratic bodies to develop, argue for, and ultimately stand for election for, new public policies? And how do we as Lib Dems move back towards a position of trust we held before where we can argue cases on the basis we will push them when we have some influence in government or administration?

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