Enough’s enough: 6 essential steps to help clean up the reputation of British politics

by Stephen Tall on March 26, 2012

We’ve been here before: many times, under many different governments. The latest addition to the lexicon of big money politics scandals is Peter Cruddas’s crude cash-for-access fundraising, with influence on government policy touted for £250,000 a pop. Under Labour, we witnessed the Bernie Ecclestone affair, as well as the cash-for-honours scandal.

To date this shared complicity — the “all parties are as bad as each other” mentality — has served only the interests of senior politicians in justifying the continuing scandal of how big money talks in British politics. But enough is enough. We have already had a full, independent inquiry — Sir Christopher Kelly’s report, Political Party Finance: Ending the big donor culture — into what needs to be done. A further inquiry will serve only to allow more long grass to grow up around the issue. It’s time for action.

Here are the six steps I think are most urgent to help clean up the reputation of British politics:

    1. A cash limit of £10,000 per annum on all individual donations

    This is the first, most important step, with £10,000 the figure favoured by The Kelly Report (it still amounts to £50k over the lifetime of a parliament). It’s no surprise that political parties listen more carefully to donors who can contribute 6- and 7-figure donations. No surprise — but it is wrong.

    2. All trade union members must explicitly opt-in to the political donations made by their bosses

    As The Kelly Report proposed, trade union affiliation fees could be counted as a collection of small individual payments — but only if members are required to ‘opt in’ to the fees, rather than as at present consent assumed by trade union bosses.

    3. Individual donations to be eligible for Gift Aid tax relief

    I give money away to charitable causes and to political causes, and believe both to be equally important in effecting change in society — yet only the former qualifies for Gift Aid relief. Those who choose to try and make a difference to society through political donations should be recognised in the same way that gifts to other worthwhile causes are.

    4. A lower national cap on spending

    At each general election, there is an arms race between the Tories and Labour to see who can spend most money; inevitably this ratchets up the pressure on parties to out-do each other on donations, with just the kinds of consequences we’ve seen this weekend. At the moment the national figure each party can spend is £19.5m (650 seats multuiplied by £30k each). This is far too high. The Kelly Report proposed reducing it by 15% — 50% would be more like it.

    5. Publication of politicians’ tax statements

    In the US, candidates for the presidency disclose their earnings and tax statements: so too should cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister (the shadow cabinet should do so voluntarily). What clearer message could be given that politicians are committed to financial transparency at every level?

    6. No additional state funding

    In some senses, the debate over ‘state funding’ misses the point: it already exists. Opposition political parties have benefited form so-called ‘Short Money’, taxpayers’ money spent on political advisors; party election broadcasts are freely given air-time; there’s freepost election literature distributed during election times. This is rightly, in my view, seen as the ‘price of democracy’, and is a legitimate cost of ensuring those standing for election can communicate to voters. But the emphasis must now be on restricting spending by parties already subsidised by the taxpayer, not on increasing the supply of public money still further at a time of national austerity.

If some of these proposals seem familiar, that’s because they are. This is not a new issue. It is not an issue unique to the Tories or to Labour or to the Lib Dems. It’s an issue for the body politic, and the time to address it properly is long overdue.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.