We’re barely into a new week, and already the Conservative Party is embroiled in yet another controversy about being the party paid for and answering to the super-rich. After the passage of the free-market bonanza NHS bill, then the “fuck the poor” spectacle of a Budget that considered cutting taxes for the wealthy its most important priority, now it seems that if you give the Conservatives £250,000 or more, you get to have dinner with David Cameron and tell him what to do.
Seemingly keen to hasten their electoral demise by rushing headlong to the state of sleaze and scandal it took them years to reach by 1997, it seems the Conservatives have been allowing party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas to promise that every donor of £250,000 or more will have a private dinner with Cameron at the Number 10 flat. This, it was heavily implied, would allow such donors a significant input into party policy – suddenly the reasons for the cutting of the top tax rate seem clearer.
Cameron, of course, said he’d known nothing about this (to quote Christine Keeler, “well, he would, wouldn’t he?”). In the wake of a Sunday Times video clearly showing Cruddas making this offer, the hapless co-treasurer instantly resigned, without the usual days of Cameron offering his “full support”. Clearly, even for the Tories, this wasn’t going to be one they could brazen their way out of.
Not that they’re not trying. Cameron seemed to immediately withdraw from public view, leaving hopeless Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to vainly defend Cruddas’ actions on Radio 4’s Today programme and in the Commons. Maude was onto rather a sticky wicket trying to defend a policy that everyone had suspected existed, but for which there had previously been no proof. “But,” protested Maude, “it’s not like this is new. Everyone knows you can buy the Conservative Party!”
OK, those weren’t his precise words, but that’s more or less what he was saying. And do you know what? He’s actually right. A quick glance at the Conservative Party webpage concerning donations reveals exactly what level of access you can get, and for how much.
- £50 a month gets you the title of ‘Party Patron’ and, presumably, a glowing sense of well-being.
- £250 annually (less money, oddly) gets you into ‘Fastrack’ (I like my racks fast), where you meet “like-minded supporters of the Party” at “social events”.
- £2000 annually gets you into the anachronistically named ‘Team 2000’, and here things start to look decidedly fishy. These guys are, apparently, “The principal group of donors who support and market the Party’s policies in Government, by hearing them first hand from the Leader and key Conservative politicians through a lively programme of drinks receptions, dinner and discussion”.
- £2500 gets you into the ‘City and Entrepreneurs’ forum, at which you have “discussions… in the West End”. On what, I wonder?
- £5000 gets you into the ‘Front Bench Club’, and you get to “debate with MPs at a series of political lunches”. Presumably without ever telling them that your donations will stop if they don’t do what you want.
- £10,000 gets you into the ‘Renaissance Forum’, at which you “enjoy dinners and political debate with eminent speakers from the world of business and politics”. “Debate” as in “bribery”?
- £25,0000 gets you into the ‘Treasurers’ Group, at which you will be “invited to join senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”. Hmmm…
- And lastly, for this list, £50,000 gets you into the ‘Leader’s Group’, in which you can look forward to being “invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”.
The price list stops there, but it’s reasonable to assume that, just as Cruddas said, increasingly high donations will get you increasingly exclusive access (for a couple of amusing suggestions as to what exactly, check out Millennium Dome’s blog). So, just as Maude says, this was hardly a secret. Well, maybe this level was, but it was easy enough to work out from what they’d actually put in the public domain.
Thus it was that a shaky looking David Cameron finally emerged from the shadows this lunchtime for a previously booked gig he couldn’t duck out of – an address to the Alzheimer’s Society on increased dementia funding. The sight of him delivering his excuses beneath a banner advertising the society may not have pleased them (and invites some tasteless jokes which I’ll refrain from here), as he relegated their cause to second place after addressing the whole wretched ‘corruption’ issue.
He insisted that all this was news to him, but admitted that there had been private dinners with some high flown donors. It was all above board, he insisted, and there was no question of impropriety or undue influence on government policy. That’s all right then. Presumably these billionaires just wanted the undoubted delight of the Camerons’ company, and in no way did the fact of their massively high donations hang over the dinner like a looming sense of obligation.
Still, Cameron promised to publish the details of all these dinners – “something no Prime Minister has ever done before”. It’s a revealing list of plutocrats, hedge fund managers and financial brokers, all of whom, given their net worth, presumably donated significantly more than £250,000 each to the Party. Still, I’m sure the possibility of displeasing those who financially prop up his party by disagreeing with their aims never once entered into our incorruptible Prime Minister’s head.
And with that, he promised an internal investigation into the affair and proceeded to lifelessly deliver his planned speech on dementia. Afterwards, he slunk off without taking any questions from the assembled journos, and is conveniently absent from Prime Minister’s Questions at the House for the next few weeks, leaving his whipping boy Nick Clegg to take the flak. Being for once blameless, Clegg could have a lot of fun at his master’s expense here – I wonder if he’ll have the nerve?
Labour, of course, leapt on the revelations with glee. Ed Miliband, with the air of a school debating society captain who’s won a petty victory, fumed that it was a bit mad to have an internal Tory party investigation into allegations of corruption into the Conservative Party. In this he has a point. The old “quis custodiet ipsos custodes” question could debatably apply to any political party, but it’s certainly pertinent when the party in question is actually in government and passing legislation. Still, when the calls for an independent inquiry are led by “cash for peerages” Labour Lord Levy, the words “pot” “kettle” and “black” instantly leap to mind.
Because it’s not like Labour have never done this kind of thing. Apart from Levy, and the odd coincidence that big Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone was exempted from the ban on tobacco advertising for his Formula 1 hobby, the Labour website too lists ‘benefits’ for their donors. Admittedly, their menu is rather more modestly priced, and tops off with the exciting sounding ‘Thousand Club’ which confusingly costs £1200 to join. This doesn’t get you an intimate dinner with Ed Miliband, in the unlikely event that you should desire such a thing, merely “exclusive events” and a free pass to the Party Conference, the Glastonbury for Labour supporters. But it’s the same kind of thing as the Tories. And besides, Labour don’t need big donations – they get those already from the Trade Unions.
Which brings us to the whole vexed question of party funding, and how it influences policy. It’s an odd coincidence that in a recent Deputy Prime Minster’s Questions, Clegg was called on to answer what was being done about the undue influence of unaccounted for lobbyists on each party; at the time, I caught myself thinking, doesn’t that include all those funding donors, like the unions funding Labour and the City providing more than half the funding for the Conservatives?
With the issue thrown so thoroughly into the public eye, Cameron fell back on some old policies, stating that donations to parties should be capped at £50,000 annually. Now, there is some merit to the idea that donations should be capped, to prevent the donors effectively ‘buying’ their own compliant government (as seems to be the case in the United States). But £50,000? That’s still £250,000 over a five year Parliament. Which is quite a lot.
No party (except maybe the Lib Dems) has been keen to really address the issue of party funding, for the obvious reason that any reform to the present system would stand to lose them quite a bit of money. As it stands, the Labour Party is largely funded by huge Trade Union donations, and the Conservative Party by City firms and plutocrats. As a result, each is obliged to take a stand on fairly narrow, sectional viewpoints. This is actually the very antithesis of democracy and the embodiment of corrupt self-interest, but because it’s such a longstanding arrangement, few people question it any more.
Not coincidentally, this is one of the reasons why the Tories tend to do well despite representing, basically, businesses and the rich. They have a massive financial advantage that allows them to sweep in with a barrage of donor-funded publicity in any constituency where they might be threatened. Labour have the wherewithal to stage at least something of a fight back, but the Lib Dems, whose funding is far more modest, have never had a chance. With a much more limited supply of financial resources, they’ve had to concentrate on seats they have a good chance of winning, and simply abandon the rest as a lost cause. And they’re more leery than their counterparts of large donors, after their one big contributor, Michael Brown, turned out not to actually own all the money he gave to them.
This is clearly a corrupt state of affairs – but when the leading parties are the beneficiaries, why would they challenge it? But interestingly, a 15 month inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended some pretty sweeping reforms when they reported last November. The report recommended a much lower cap of £10,000 per donor, which would bring things down to a much more level playing field for all three major parties. Of course, this wouldn’t go far to funding a big political operation for any of them. Which is why the report proposes using £23million of state (read ‘taxpayer’) money to make up the shortfall, and give all three major parties the same amount of money to deal with. Hey presto – at a stroke, the Tories would be stripped of their City-funded financial advantage, Labour wouldn’t have to be a slave to the unions, and the Lib Dems might approach something like credibility in comparison.
There are moral and pragmatic arguments against this – why should the taxpayer fund political campaigning (particularly when austerity is cutting real incomes left, right and centre), and how could this get voted through when the two largest parties stand to lose advantages because of it? As a result, we’re unlikely to see anything like this happen, which is sad, because as the Committee said, it would be “ the only safe way to remove big money from party funding”, and claw something like democracy back from vested interests who can currently buy representation in ways the ordinary voter can only dream of.
But on the flipside, even with austerity, this amounts to a contribution of 50p annually for each taxpayer. And £23million may sound like a lot, but it’s pocket change compared to what’s being slashed from the NHS and the benefit system while billionaires are getting tax cuts. Isn’t it a price worth paying to buy back your representation from self-interested billionaires and trade union demagogues? With the issue certain to be debated, this report is bound to be called on – by the Lib Dems if nobody else, since they have least to lose. That’s assuming they’ve paid the requisite £250,000 to get the Prime Minister to listen…