Preventing the Tories tilting the political scales (again)

House of Lords

Last week saw the largest Government defeat yet in the Lords during this Parliament, putting a brake on Conservative plans to cut trade union funding to the Labour Party. The move they are attempting to make MUST be coupled with a fair cap on individual donations to get ALL the big money out of politics. Ministers repeatedly allege that their bill is not about party funding, but this is arrant poppycock. Plainly, it IS party funding reform but it is for one party only.

This attempt to tilt the political scales in a Conservative direction is hardly without precedent. In this Parliament alone we have seen up to 1.9 million registered voters unilaterally wiped off the electoral roll, cuts to the funding which enables opposition parties to be effective, and of course boundary changes continue apace. In the year up to the election 57% of Labour funds came from trade unions, while 59% of ALL individual donations to all parties put together went to the Conservatives. To stem one form of funding, without the remotest movement on the other form, is another naked attempt to entrench Conservative undiluted power. It is also a breach of the Conservative manifesto which promised:

In the next Parliament, we will legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for subscriptions to political parties. AND We will continue to seek agreement on a comprehensive package of party funding reform.

They have forgotten altogether the second part of their commitment. I found myself in rare agreement with the veteran Conservative, Lord (Patrick) Cormack, who conceded in debate, “Frankly, to suggest that the Bill is not singling out a political party is disingenuous.”

We had support, also, from the independent Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord (Paul) Bew, which recommended a comprehensive package of reform in 2011. He said, “To take one element, whether it be the role of trade unions or of business in party funding, and to deal with it separately is not in the spirit of that report.”

Former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Lord (Michael) Forsyth even told his colleagues “We are provoking a confrontation that will do none of us any good and certainly will not do the political system any good.”

Ministers were defeated by 93 votes on the motion I originally drafted. Now that a Select Committee is to be convened, I hope it will examine trade union funding and individual donations together, and look too at the dysfunctional rules around spending.

As readers of LDV know better than most, last year all parties swamped marginal, targeted constituencies with money from central funds which, as long as it did not mention the name of the candidate, was completely outside the constituency limits. Spending on material of that nature therefore hugely exceeds those limits, and it is clear from the figures published by the Electoral Commission this week that the Conservative Party, and no doubt the other parties, made huge use of this loophole. The figures show they spent £4 million on “unsolicited material to voters”: suppose they spread that around a maximum of 200 target seats. Do the maths!

I concur with Michael Crick of Channel 4 when he says these may be the official figures, but that he does not believe them. A comprehensive package of reform could deal with all of this, and now is our best chance in this Parliament to secure such a package.

Finally, I must add that while my principled argument for seeking a balanced package has scarcely been disputed, some Lib Dems have argued in these past few days that we shouldn’t be in the business of helping the Labour Party. I have no special affection for them either, but this Bill is not just about weakening Labour; it is about strengthening and entrenching Conservative power. I’m a liberal and I’m against that sort of thing !

Paul Tyler is Constitutional Reform Spokesperson in the House of Lords. His full speech on the motion this week is available here.



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

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  • A dangerously undemocratic government set of moves by a Party that seems to think it has a divine right to rule forever even when it only scrapes a very thin majority on pitiful turnouts. At this rate by the time the next election arrives they’ll be hard remove even if they don’t get the popular vote.

  • So tell me Lord Tyler what guarantees have you got from the Lords Labour team that a) they will support a balanced reform vote at the select commmittee and b) will show up for a vote of the recommendations of that committee. My guess is that just as they did with the 16-18 vote on voting, on our tax credits motion they won’t show up as it won’t be in their interest.

    I take it these conversations were held?

  • David Evershed 23rd Jan '16 - 4:49pm

    Surely Lib Dem policy supports

    a) individual voter registration (rather than registration of householders by ‘the head of the household’) and

    b) equalisation of the number of registered voters in each constituency

    c) some reduction in the number of MPs, given so much legislation is now done by the EU or devolved down

  • Chris Burden 23rd Jan '16 - 6:16pm

    @Glenn. Er. They didn’t even get the popular vote this time. 37% of turnout/24% of electorate.

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Jan '16 - 6:50pm

    Yes, the party supports individual registration (and for very good reasons), but the government deliberately rushed the change so that there was not enough time for all voters to register in time for the boundary review, and that is the gerrymander.

    As for equalisation, what’s the point? what matters is proportionality, and FPTP can not practically achieve this at all. Equalising constituency sizes is not likely to do this. What is far more important in making the current system fairer is for constituencies to form natural communities. this also does not do much for proportional representation, but it does at least strengthen the MP-constituency link. Unnatural boundaries (for instance those resulting from a dogmatic commitment to equal size constituencies) weaken this link, and thus destroy one of the strongest arguments for a single-member constituency system.

    As for reduction in the number of MPs, this would ONLY be acceptable if the payroll vote is reduced correspondingly. It is already too high a proportion of the total vote in Parliament.

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