Tories under fire for loans secrecy

by Stephen Tall on August 24, 2006

The Times today reports on the dressing down the Electoral Commission has given the Tory Party for failing to declare £36 million of loans:

In the three months to June, the Tories declared that they had taken out two bank loans totalling £2.8 million. But they made no mention of almost £16 million in outstanding loans to donors, plus a similar amount owed to banks. Nor did they mention the £4.5 million borrowed from Conservative associations and £200,000 from the Association of Conservative Clubs.

A party spokesman said that details of all “outstanding loans” had been published, but five months ago it announced that it had repaid £5 million to lenders who refused to be identified, some of whom were not registered to vote in Britain and therefore were unable to make conventional donations. …

The Electoral Commission criticised the Conservatives for not providing full details of all its outstanding loans, despite a voluntary agreement with all the main parties under which they would declare both existing and new loans before this becomes a legal requirement on September 11.

It suggested further that the Tories and Labour should have declared loans made to their local or regional parties. Of the main parties, only the Liberal Democrats did so, listing just over £100,000 loans to constituency organisations.

The Lib Dems have come in for a lot of stick from ‘certain right-wing blogs’ (newspaper code for Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes) in the last few months concerning Michael Brown, the Scottish financier currently facing nine years in jail, who donated £2.4m to the Party before the 2005 election.

But, despite all the innuendo, no-one has ever been able seriously to suggest that the Lib Dems acted in anything other than good faith when accepting the donation – and, as has become clear from subsequent events, Mr Brown gained nothing as a result of his gifts.

The contrast between the Lib Dems’ full compliance and the other parties’ obfuscations could not be clearer: the Tory Party is deliberately withholding information on loans accepted prior to 1st April, while the Labour Party nervously awaits the next move by Scotland Yard’s assistant commissionaire, John Yates, who’s heading up the ‘cash for peerages’ criminal investigation.

The end result is, of course, that the reputations of party politics and of party politicians take yet another battering, with the public dismissing it all with a weary sigh of ‘a plague on all your houses’.

I am against any further state funding of political parties. But there is a third way, which I proposed here:

At general elections, all candidates are allowed an election communication, often called a ‘freepost’ – that is, one leaflet which is delivered free of charge to every elector in the constituency in which the candidate is standing. Why not extend this system? Perhaps allow up to three freeposts in any election campaign (local or general) to any candidate from any party? And maybe throw in a couple of paid-for party election broadcasts too.

Let’s help political parties to communicate with those they hope to represent. But let’s not give them free money, provided by the tax-payer, to do with as they wish.