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.”
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.