2:31 pm - November 28th 2007
So what are we to make of the latest funding ‘scandal’ to engulf the Labour Party..?
Well… not as much as you might think.
You’ll have to forgive me for being a trifle cynical here but, on the assumption that David Abrahams would have been a permissible donor had his donations been correctly registered, then it would seem that the real problem here is simply one of an absurd lack of sophistication in the manner in which he attempted to preserve his own anonymity as a donor.
In simple terms, Abrahams used the wrong kind of intermediary – private individuals – to funnel his money to Labour without revealing his identity when, with a little more subtlety (and a bit of Tory know-how) he might otherwise have hidden successfully behind a secretive unincorporated association, like the Midlands Industrial Council, or buried his identity behind loan arrangements made through a string of corporate fronts and cash shells – it should be remembered that although it did eventually ‘come clean’ and provide a list of people who had loaned money to the party in the run in to the 2005 general election, the Tories did so only after stalling on the disclosure long enough to refinance £5 million of loans in order repay several sources, some of which were from overseas, ensuring that their identities would not be disclosed.
Taken as a singular issue, this latest party funding farrago does little more than re-emphasise the importance of the point I made here:
Political Parties should be compelled to reveal, fully and explicitly, the identity of those who finance their activities, up to and including to the extent of stripping away from party donors (and loanees) the relative anonymity they currently enjoy by means of hiding behind a variety of different (and permissible) corporate entities…
…Only then can voters consider the questions that may arise from the manner in which political parties are funded is truly democratic manner.
Even without the added frisson of a direct breach of regulations, as has happened with Abrahams’ donations, the fact remains that throughout the five to six years between PPERA 2000 coming into force and the ‘cash for honours scandal’ hitting the headlines, both major parties were routinely exploiting loopholes in that legislation to conceal from the public some of the major sources of party funding. The people who made the rules, and scrutinised them as they made their way through parliament and into law, went on to exploit gaps in the legislation for the benefit of their party – and by extension, their own political ambitions – all of which rather prompts the question as to whether the failure of PPERA to require the disclosure of loans to political parties was a matter of accidental omission or deliberate design?
Tempting as it might be to focus exclusively on the matter currently before us – yet another ‘dodgy’ excursion into the ‘black arts’ of party funding – its actually more important to view this latest ‘incident’ in a wider context; as one of string of issues and problems that tell us something very important about the current state of democracy and mainstream political culture in modern Britain. Just consider for a moment how this latest incident might relate to any or all of the following (presented in no particular order):
* A series of operational failures in government departments and the civil service in which Ministerial statements to the House of Commons have been undermined, after the fact, by further revelations that call the veracity of information provided to the House in question.
The most recent example of this, of course, is that relating to the question of responsibility for the decision to send 25 million records from the Child Benefit database from HMRC to the National Audit Office on two CDs via unregistered internal mail, but so far as the generality of such incidents are concerned its well worth reading this article by Jenni Russell (CiF -28 Nov 2007) for the insight it provides, not least in this observation.
Last year the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) brought out a report that was, in a quiet way, devastatingly critical of the way Whitehall runs…
…What emerged most startlingly from the report was the fact that, unlike ministers, senior civil servants had almost no sense of accountability for what happened in their departments. No matter what goes wrong, or how personally culpable they might indeed be, they are largely able to hide behind the convention that ministers should carry the can. Officials spoke of there being no convention of “facing the music”, and talked of being in a culture “that does not prize accountability”. Another official agreed that “poor performers are not removed, but are moved around”.
* Problems with the design of ballot papers and confusion arising out of different electoral systems in use for Scottish parliamentary and Scottish local government elections, which were held on the same day, resulted in the rejection of some 142,000 ballot papers in the parliamentary election, around 4% of all votes cast. A subsequent independent review by Ron Gould, commissioned by the Electoral Commission, found that:
Almost without exception, the voter was treated as an afterthought by virtually all the other stakeholders. Numerous factors – such as combining the ballot papers for the Scottish parliamentary elections, introducing a new voting system with different ballot paper marking requirements, the failure to conduct adequate research and testing on the impact this new system would have on the electorate, the insistence on conducting an overnight count – all indicate to us that voters were overlooked as the most important stakeholders to be considered at every stage of the election.
Gould’s report was initially taken to include rather stern criticism of the conduct of Ministers, the Scottish Executive and Scotland Office, specifically:
During our consultations with stakeholders, it became clear that both the Scotland Office and the Scottish Executive were frequently focused on partisan political interests in carrying out their responsibilities, overlooking voter interests and operational realities within the electoral administration timetable. At worst, the Ministers disregarded the highly negative and disruptive influence on the elections caused by their delays in arriving at key decisions. At best, they either overlooked or were poorly advised with regard to the serious operational consequences that could and did result.
However, Gould went on to clarify these comments, which the media presented as something akin to an allegation of gerrymandering/ballot rigging by Labour, as follows:
It was clear to me from the start of my work that key legislative decisions which impacted on how the elections in Scotland were run were taken too late. I did not suggest in the report that specific actions were taken by Ministers to advance their own party’s interests but that all political parties were concerned with the potential political advantage that could be gained by certain decisions, such as on the question of ballot paper design, and this delayed key decisions.
When I examined the reasons for this I concluded that, while responsibility for taking these decisions lay with the Scotland Office and the Scottish Executive, all political parties in Scotland were involved in the long-running debates, contributed to the final decisions and shared in the failure to prioritise the interests of the voter.
In relation to the involvement of political parties across the spectrum in Scotland, I said: “It has become increasingly clear that too much political debate was associated with the design of the Scottish parliamentary and local government ballot papers. Regarding the Scottish parliamentary ballot papers, months of partisan political discussion and debate wasted valuable time which could otherwise have been used to establish a ballot paper which all voters could easily understand. The Scottish Executive’s inability to arrive at a consensus with political parties in the Scottish Parliament on the design of the local government ballot paper led to delays and the need to pass the problem to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Transport Committee for a decision. These legislative delays can be directly linked to subsequent operational delays.”
In short, all the main parties approached consultations on the election and changes to the electoral process from a partisan standpoint, one which took the process as an opportunity to try to wring minor electoral advantages, such as a better position on the ballot paper, ahead of considering the needs of voters and the interests of democracy.
* The apparent collapse of the Phillips Review of party funding, due to both major parties, again, pursuing their own partisan interests.
The current situation is well enough documented.
Labour will not countenance changes to its Trade Union funding – although its noting that this funding is already subjected to the most heavily regulated, open and transparent funding arrangements that exist under the present system but want limits on donations outside election periods of a kind that would prevent Lord Ashcroft and other major Tory donors from ‘preparing the ground’ by funnelling large sums of money into key marginals in between elections.
The Conservatives have proposed a cap on donations, including those from Trade Unions, of £50,000 but, noticeably, have nothing to say on the subject of how such a cap would operate in detail. Such a cap would only be meaningful if it could not be easily circumvented by way of multiple donations either over a period of time or via a string of different sources controlled by the same individual/corporate entity, If the effect of such a cap would only be to turn a single large donation into a string of smaller donations given over a period of time by a series of subsidiary companies controlled by a single donor.
And let’s not forget that, in the wake of the Abrahams’ donations, Liberal Democrat leadership contender, Chris Huhne, has decided to get in the act with this suggestion:
“Let’s have a system where all trade union members and company shareholders can vote for the union or the company to give a donation – and that donation is then split according to the vote.”
A system that would – coincidentally – reduce the size of donations to the two main parties, while favouring the Lib Dems, who rely mainly on individual donations, and who might even, conceivably, pick up some extra cash if this suggested voting system were to be based, say, on union members/shareholders indicating where they’d like their ‘portion’ of the proposed donation to go rather than a simple yes or no to the proposal to donate funds to a specific party.
Huhne will, no doubt, claim that his suggestion is ‘democratic’, which it kind of is but in a manner which, if applied to votes in the House of Commons, would result in laws that only applied part of the time depending on the proportion of MPs who voted for or against them in the House.
* Staying with the issue of party funding, if a little more obliquely, there is the question of the current domiciliary status of two of the Conservative Party’s major funders, Michael Ashcroft and Irvine Laidlaw, both of whom gave undertakings in relation to taking up residency in the UK in order to obtain their respective peerages.
In Ashcroft’s case, such an undertaking – which included rearranging his personal affairs in order to become a UK taxpayer – was given in 2001 both publicly, as part of an out of court settlement of a libel action against the Times that ended as ‘no-score draw’ and to his own party leader at the time, William Hague. In effect, Ashcroft’s peerage, the nomination for which had previously been blocked by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, was conditional on his honouring that undertaking although, in law at the time, his peerage could not be revoked once given.
Six year on, both Ashcroft’s domiciliary and tax status remain indeterminate, with questions about both being deflected with the assertion that this is a private matter between Ashcroft and HMRC and not a matter of legitimate public interest. Such a stance may be reasonable in terms of the detail of Ashcroft’s tax situation – he is as entitled to confidentiality in terms of how much tax he personally pays to the Exchequer each year as anyone else – the question of whether he pays anything at all and has, therefore, honoured that undertaking is a matter of legitimate interest and a question that should be answered.
In Laidlaw’s case, however, no such doubts arise. Laidlaw’s elevation to the peerage in June 2004 was, again, contingent on an undertaking he gave to take up residency in the UK, one which he has still to honour for, as yet, unspecified ‘personal reasons’ – he still has his permanent residence in South Africa.
What links all these issues is that they all, in their own way, demonstrate a degree of general contempt for important concepts like democracy, transparency, and accountability…
…and in truth there is no shortage of other examples I could cite which demonstrate the same contemptuous attitudes, from Jack Straw’s abject failure to advance a single cogent argument for, or give any consideration to the case against, the retention of both Church of England Bishops and politically appointed peers in his white paper on House of Lords reform (pdf – see pages 28 and 31 respectively) to the shameful, covert and duplicitous manner in which both Labour and Conservative front benches colluded to strip all vestiges of independence from public inquiries via the Inquiries Act 2005, which passed into law without either a third reading debate or Commons vote and back, even, to the response of the Thatcher government to the acquittal of Clive Ponting, in which a jury exercised its right to accept a public interest defence in defiance of instructions issued by the trial judge, using the principle of jury nullification, following which the government rail-roaded a new Official Secrets Act (1989) through parliament to prevent such a defence being used again.
Taken in isolation, any one of these issues seems fair game for a bout of partisan point scoring, the kind which ascribes such incidents to personal deficiencies in character in an individual or within a small group of politicians, i.e. ‘sleaze’.
Looked at in their wider context, however, one cannot help but arrive at the view that there is something deeply rotten at the very heart of British democracy and of our established political and governmental culture. In short, this is only what you should expect in a political system that lacks a codified constitution and in which both the legislature and executive (i.e. parliament and government) are so closely interconnected and, by dint of tradition and convention, entirely self-regulating.
In short, this is what you get when you put the lunatics in sole and unfettered charge of the asylum.
To sneak in a quick reference to Lenin (sorry) the question we face is ‘What is to be done?’
It’s very easy – too easy – to take the negative route and simply rail ineffectually against the iniquities of the present system – and some might say that that’s pretty much all us bloggers do most of the time – but while there are times, certainly, when there is little else one can do but mount a negative campaign, as is the case with No2ID, where the objective is to try to prevent the introduction of ID cards, one still has to wonder to what extent such negative campaigning limits the capacity of such campaigns to break into the mainstream.
Would UKIP, for example, be taken rather more seriously if, instead of constantly pushing an unremittingly negative line on Europe, it switched to a more positive tack? How differently would its agenda be viewed by the public if instead of constantly being seen to be berating the government for ceding British sovereignty to the EU it chose, instead to approach things from the positive angle of taking a constitutionalist position and arguing for a written constitution, enacted by referendum, of a kind that would shore up and even repatriate what they consider to be key elements of sovereignty from Europe. Such a constitution would have, one would suppose, the same ‘desired’ effect – it would drive a coach and several horses through the Maastricht Treaty let alone the new reform treaty and certainly ‘push’ the issue of Britain’s continued membership of the EU but might gain more ground, and greater support, for being couched in positive terms, i.e. as being for something rather than against something else.
The same arguments could be applied to the Campaign for an English Parliament, which is too often rhetorically associated with negative arguments about the effects of devolution- it’s own website makes this point on its home page:
Just consider a small sample of the huge benefits their own parliaments have been able to deliver to Scotland and Wales. Scottish students do not have to pay university fees like English students do, and that even when they are at English universities. Scottish pensioners in nursing homes get free personal care, they don’t have to sell their houses to pay for it like English pensioners do. In Wales everyone gets free prescriptions. £1300 more is spent on health, education and social services per head in Scotland and Wales than in England. Little wonder the 1998 Devolution legislation states that the Scottish and Welsh parliaments will be ‘the forum to provide a forum for the concerns of the nation’.
All of which smacks more of envy of the Celtic fringe than of a campaign for a fair and equitable constitutional settlement for England, much as the rhetoric adopted by some of its supporters, especially when referring to the so-called ‘Scottish Raj’, smacks too much of a campaign motivated by a thinly concealed belief that an English parliament would produce an innate conservative (and indeed Conservative) parliamentary hegemony.
To be fair to the CEP, many of their supporters may be conservative/libertarian in outlook but most of those I’ve personally come across are genuine in believing that an English parliament is, first and foremost, a matter of constitutional equity. The problem is that the few who clearly do appear to be driven by the belief that the natural state of England is a conservative hegemony tend, as is the case with UKIP, to be amongst their most vocal and verbally aggressive supporters and not only tend to drown out more reasoned (and reasonable) opinions on their own side but taint the whole campaign with an aura of unadulterated wing-nuttery.
(Libertarianism, it has to be said, generally suffers from much the same perceptual issues – the loudest ‘voices’ are too often those of Thatcherite Tory ‘converts’ whose twin obsessions with tax cuts and getting rid of the welfare state in its entirety create the impression that libertarianism is the exclusive preserve of a bunch of Gordon Gecko wannabes and not, even its right-wing variants, a political outlook that relies heavily on a strong personal sense of citizenship and a commitment to voluntary cooperation and altruism for the whole shebang to work.)
Equally there are campaigns out there that are trying to address some of these issues, like Unlock Democracy, Elect the Lords and Future Britain; and there are ideas and practices in place elsewhere in the world from which we can learn, from the US Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which Sunny picks up here to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) to the democratic centralism practised by the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores in the Brazillian city of Porto Alegre*. However, its too often the case that the language and presentation of such campaigns is couched in such a technical manner as to exclude the possibility of gaining mass support.
* Important note: Don’t be put off either by the reference to TABOR being supported by libertarians and conservatives or by either the recent splits in PT or its record in national government under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which has largely taken a ‘Blairite’ course since “Lula’s” election as President in 2002. Both TABOR and the form of civic democratic centralism used specifically in Porto Alegre are based on the use of direct democracy to give voters a measure of direct control over governmental expenditure and, taken together, can reasonably be considered to be an example of how both left and right can arrive at broadly similar outcomes by different routes.
Unlock Democracy is currently seeking parliamentary sponsors for its Citizen’s Convention Bill, the purpose of which it describes in the following terms:
The Citizens’ Convention Bill would commit the Government to establishing a Citizens’ Convention within twelve months of the Bill becoming law, which would actively involve people in deliberating on how to improve the way the UK is governed. The Government would then be required to co-operate with the Convention in deciding on the implementation of those recommendations.
The Bill doesn’t prescribe how the Citizens’ Convention should be composed; that is a matter of further debate and we support initiatives such as Future Britain which seeks to develop new processes for engaging the public in constitutional change. But it does commit the Government to consulting widely on how it should be composed, commits the Government and Convention to take all reasonable steps to ensure that people from the most unrepresented and marginalised sections of society are heard and commits the Convention to holding meetings and other mechanisms to involve citizens in all parts of the United Kingdom.
Its a laudable enough proposition but the problem is – in terms of gaining mass support – that it doesn’t actually give people much to get behind and support. It provides for a ‘Citizens’ Convention’ of no defined shape, size or composition, which will ‘actively involve people in deliberating on how to improve the way the UK is governed’ to no specified end or purpose.
You and I may know that there’s a lot more to this proposal than immediately meets the eye and that Unlock Democracy, which brings together Charter 88 and the New Politics Network, have some clear views not only the need for change but also on the kinds of changes that are needed, but to someone who is new to all this, that description says one thing and one thing only…
Contrast that with two of the most important historical campaigns for constitutional reform, those of the Levellers and the Chartists.
The first ‘Agreement of the People’, entitled ‘An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right’, which was presented to the Army Council in 1647, was admirably clear in its ‘demands’ and provided a simple and very clear agenda to its supporters:
1. That matters of religion and the ways of God’s worship are not at all entrusted by us to any human power, because therein we cannot remit or exceed a tittle of what our consciences dictate to be the mind of God without wilful sin: nevertheless the public way of instructing the nation (so it be not compulsive) is referred to their discretion.
2. That the matter of impresting and constraining any of us to serve in the wars is against our freedom; and therefore we do not allow it in our Representatives; the rather, because money (the sinews of war), being always at their disposal, they can never want numbers of men apt enough to engage in any just cause.
3. That after the dissolution of this present Parliament, no person be at any time questioned for anything said or done in reference to the late public differences, otherwise than in execution of the judgments of the present Representatives or House of Commons.
4. That in all laws made or to be made every person may be bound alike, and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected.
5. That as the laws ought to be equal, so they must be good, and not evidently destructive to the safety and well-being of the people.
In short, what the Levellers wanted was religious freedom, regular elected parliaments and equality before the law – all very simple, to the point and, above all, clear and easy to understand.
Similarly, Chartism, in its People’s Charter of 1838, set out a very straightforward agenda:
The six points of the People’s Charter
1. A VOTE for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
2. THE BALLOT.–To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
3. NO PROPERTY QUALIFICATION for members of Parliament—thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
4. PAYMENT OF MEMBERS, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
5. EQUAL CONSTITUENCIES, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
6. ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
Who could argue with that, or claim to be unsure of what the Chartists stood for?
I’m not dismissing the efforts of Unlock Democracy by any means – they’re at least trying to do something – simply pointing out a simple historical fact; that if one reviews the history of the British constitution over the last 300 years or so, one finds that the single most consistent ‘enemy’ of meaningful reforms has been procrastination and prevarication – if you want to verify that for yourself then try this transcript of the Putney Debates and keep a close watch on how Ireton stalls, plays for time and generally derails the debate at every possible opportunity.
To gain any traction with the public, let alone generate the kind of mass movement for civil liberties advocated by Henry Porter:
What is needed – and here I hope someone is listening – is a mass movement on the lines of the Countryside Alliance, which goes across all parties and absorbs the skills and expertise of countless activists. Now is the moment to create a movement in defence of our privacy, security and freedom.
…what’s needed are simple, clear, objectives with a defined outcome at the end of them.
Forget about debating the intricacies of regulating party funding, donation capping regimes, and state-contributions based on votes recorded at previous elections, for example, and instead let’s start be asking for – no, demanding – complete openness and transparency in party finances, the full disclosure of all sources of funding of whatever kind together with the full personal identity of sources. Such a proposal is clear, simple and impossible to misunderstand.
Similarly, and this an issue that can be tackled immediately, we have a situation in which all three major parties are talking up the possibility of including a commitment to introduce a new Bill of Rights (or Right and Duties, or Rights and Responsibilities) in their manifestos for the next general election (whenever that happens) bus, as yet, not one of the parties has been prepared to spell out exactly what rights they expect such a Bill to contain.
The message we need to send out is simply, ‘that’s not good enough’.
If such a commitment is included in any election-winning manifesto without further detail then the expectation of the winning party, whichever it might be, will be that such a Bill will wend its merry way though parliament with the barest minimum of scrutiny and opposition – remember, the Salisbury Addison convention precludes the House of Lord from voting down legislation that enacts a manifesto commitment on the now absurd presumption that every word of the election manifesto of a winning party the imprimatur of a public mandate. On an issue of such fundamental importance – the very purpose of a Bill of Rights is to provide a fundamental definition of the relationship between the citizen and the state – its it not enough, by any means, for any party to make such a commitment without spelling out precisely what will be included in it – and for preference each party should publish its preferred draft bill, in full, well in advance of its inclusion in any manifesto.
The challenge we need to put to all parties, now, is that of publishing their full proposals for a Bill of Rights and its full contents and, in the same vein, of clarifying both whether such a Bill will be a full constitutional law – i.e. one that permits the judiciary to strike down a law that is found to ‘unconstitutional’ and also whether they are prepared to put the issue of the basic rights of citizen’s beyond the scope of conventional parliamentary sovereignty by enacting a Bill of Rights in such a way as to bind future parliaments to its provisions, which would entail putting the question of enactment to the people by means of a referendum.
These are the kinds of clear, simply, straightforward questions that need to be asked and which we need to be pushing if we are to engage the public in issues that are too often rendered into abstractions of little perceived importance by the deliberate prevarications of the political elite.
While neither succeeded in their objectives, certainly not during their own lifetimes and for a considerable time afterwards (generations in regards to the Levellers), both movements, the Levellers and the Chartist were successful in mobilising widespread support in, often, the most difficult of circumstances – just think for a moment of the degree of public literacy that both had to work with in their own time as compared to today – and they were successful because the not only captured the mood of their times but because they kept in simple, clear and to the point.
There’s a lesson we need to learn.
Title quotation – “Our slavery has been exchanged for an apprenticeship to liberty, which has aggravated the painful feeling of our social degradation, by adding to it the sickening of still deferred hope.” from a Chartist petition to Parliament, 1837.
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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