Paul Tyler writes….There can be no party funding consensus without compromise

This week’s revelations about MPs and Peers profiting from their seats in Parliament has been a catalyst to get the political reform agenda going again, though Alexander Ehmann is quite right to say that these stories were not a “lobbying” scandal as such.  No lobbyist worth their salt (or their fee) would seriously approach a parliamentarian offering ready cash.  Only journalists would do that, exposing their targets as greedy and stupid in equal measure.  The parliamentarians concerned – it would appear – have broken the rules which already exist.  And if they have sinned, it looks like a case of obtaining money by false pretences:  their influence is much more limited than they seemed to suggest.

However, it is no bad thing that this episode has got the Government jumping around.  A register of lobbyists should indeed be set up to ensure that the public can see who is lobbying on behalf of which clients.  This needs to be meshed closely with improved public data on who meets ministers, and what they discuss.  Transparency must be the target.

The Government has also signalled changes in a more significant area:  cleaning up political funding.  This is very welcome news.  What appears to be on offer is not a full, comprehensive reform package, but it is a start.  The move to deal with links between parties and non-party campaigners is a prerequisite for any more wide-ranging reform (a proper donation cap, for example) since without it money would simply move from parties to other political organisations.

Jack Straw, the former Labour Justice Secretary – who presided over cross-party talks in the last Parliament and then sat on the recommendations – is now bleating  that the Coalition, by making a proposal to actually do something, has jeopardised the chance of agreement.  Maybe so, but it is worth considering what the key obstacles to progress are.

First, there is the sense in both the Conservative and Labour Parties that so long as they “keep talking”, they will get away without making any changes.  Secondly, and following from that, is the institutional resistance of the Labour Party and the trade unions to reform.  For example, it appears they believe in a cap on donations to political parties, but don’t believe in applying that cap to any trade union donations, even those which do not originate with individual, consenting members.  It is a breathtakingly unrealistic position, which could never command ‘consensus’ from Conservatives or Liberal Democrats.

So a move by the Government to start unscrambling the cosy union relationship may act as another catalyst, to get Labour back at the table.  Personally, I do not want to see a Bill which singles out just the unions, and I do not believe we will ever agree to that.  Our draft Bill on this issue would ensure that they and other membership organisations were treated equally.  I also think there is room to remove existing burdens on trade unions, like the largely pointless – and very expensive – political fund ballots.  This should be up for discussion.

As we talk, we should keep in mind the problem that the Government is trying to fix.  There is a strong possibility of very large scale non-party campaigns distorting results at the May 2014 European Election and the next General Election, without being caught by the expenditure caps which apply to parties.  There could be tacit support and even co-operation between a non-party organisation – whether a trade union or a rightwing ‘swiftboat’ style campaign (“Let’s get out of Europe”, anyone?) – and a party, without this counting towards the relevant expenditure limit.  That is a yawning gap in the regulatory regime, and one which the draft Bill we published  also seeks to deal with.

I have invited the Government to look at it again, as they develop their own Bill.  And it would be very good if we can, in the end, reach a cross-party consensus:  Ministers should try their best.  But if Labour will not agree to anything that affects their union paymasters, it is they who are preventing consensus.  We cannot wait for them forever.

PS:  Have your say on the draft Bill our cross-party group published before the latest scandal at Funding Democracy.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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  • mike cobley 5th Jun '13 - 12:19pm

    “Personally, I do not want to see a Bill which singles out just the unions, and I do not believe we will ever agree to that. Our draft Bill on this issue would ensure that they and other membership organisations were treated equally.”

    Paul, it is time we had some clarity on this issue – is it party policy to regard trade union funding for Labour and corporate funding for the Conservatives as directly equivalent? If so, by what criteria has this judgement been arrived at?

  • Norman Fraser 5th Jun '13 - 12:51pm

    “For example, it appears they believe in a cap on donations to political parties, but don’t believe in applying that cap to any trade union donations, even those which do not originate with individual, consenting members. It is a breathtakingly unrealistic position, which could never command ‘consensus’ from Conservatives or Liberal Democrats.”

    It seems to me that this is a partisan position masquerading as a principle. Trade union political funding is the aggregate of thousands of small donations, the exact opposite of Tory Party funding. To treat both types of donation the same way is simply unfair and will be seen to be so.

  • Norman Fraser 5th Jun '13 - 3:29pm

    Paul, you’ll forgive me if I don’t give a fully considered response to a 25 page document , however some aspects of it do not at first reassure me . The procedure you propose for signing up to the political fund appears to be quite onerous and unnecessarily bureaucratic. You also apparently make no allowance for the measures that employers often use to deliberately frustrate trade unions in maintaining accurate membership lists. It seems to me that perfectly adequate arrangements already exist for running political funds and contracting out of them, and that these funds can quite easily be counted as the donations of individuals because that is what they clearly already are. See in particular page 7 of

  • One could claim that a company donation is the aggregate donation of all the shareholders, but such an argument would be disingenuous. Party funding is in a mess, there are far too many bodies that claim to be independent ‘think’ tanks that are actually fronts for political party factions.

    The difficulty is to find a solution that does not exacerbate the drift towards giving the super rich yet more power and influence on the political processes.

  • Stuart Mitchell 5th Jun '13 - 5:29pm

    Let’s be clear about what is happening here: the government is proposing to criminalise the main election fund-raising methods used by the leading opposition party, while leaving its own fund-raising apparatus virtually untouched. This sort of thing should only happen in places like Zimbabwe and Iran – not the UK. If Lib Dems go along with this, you might as well take the Dems bit out of your name.

    Consensus may well be tricky, but on a matter of such democratic import as this, it is essential. If agreement cannot be reached, it would be better to remove all funding rules altogether. (One would think this latter option would appeal to Lib Dems, who normally want less government power, not more.)

  • David Allen 5th Jun '13 - 5:39pm

    Faced with urgent demands for reforms on lobbying, the Coalition has chosen to muddle up the subject with the quite different issue of party political funding. They have proposed something in that area which they know Labour are bound to oppose. This will, of course, make it impossible to get a consensus easily. It will slow down any possible reform on lobbying.

    Who is playing the silly political games here?

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