Monday, March 13, 2006

Loan arranger no brainer

It seems it isn't actually against the rules for a party of government to solicit million-pound loans from the extremely rich, keep things hush-hush by not declaring them to the Electoral Commission, and then nominate benefactors for a peerage.

But most people have little difficulty in seeing such a mechanism for what it is: a straightforward cash-for-honours bring-and-buy sale, so corrupt it would warm the cockles of Lloyd George's heart. If political crack whoredom on this scale isn't illegal, it damn well should be.

Nor do I find the explanations Labour proffers particularly convincing. If the loans were made at 'commercial rates', then why weren't they secured from a bank?

Inevitably, the latest revelations have revived calls for additional state funding for political parties, on top of the generous amounts of cash they already cream off from the taxpayer. I find the argument for further extension deeply unattractive.

For a start, state funding could only address the issue of sleaze if all other donations were banned. Otherwise, it would amount to little more than a handy little top-up.

But party members and supporters should have the right to put their money where their mouth is. So should trade unions, if their memberships mandate them to do so. And - let's be consistent here - businesses should be allowed to make political donations too, provided they ballot their shareholders on the question.

State funding would in practice be tantamount to state licensing of political parties, based on past electoral performance. Legitimate newcomers would be severely disadvantaged.

Worst of all, state funding offends against basic democratic principles. Political parties are voluntary organisations. If people want to support them, they do. If they don't want to, they don't.

This is how it should be. There can be no justification for forcing taxpayers to pay for parties they are at best indifferent towards, and at worst heartily despise.

A democratic socialist party with an enthusiastic mass membership and labour movement affiliations could raise all the money it needed from it committed backers.

If New Labour had a million members - and that was Blair's stated aim ten years ago - it wouldn't be forced cadge questionable loans off ex-Tory businessmen desperate to don ermine.

But perhaps the most damning point that can be made about the Patel-Townsley-Garrard affair is Blairism's endemic fingers in the till behaviour has lost the power to shock anymore. That surely must be bad news for democracy.

UPDATE: Nick Robinson of the BBC has some pointed remarks to make about New Labour sleaze. Then again, he should know what he is talking about. He used to be a Tory.

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