Monday night’s Dispatches programme offered us very little new. It was surprising to see Lord Strasburger encouraging a donor to give money via a proxy as if the David Abrahams affair never happened, and the fact that then-colleague, Ibrahim Taguri got caught out saying something similar at around the same time, suggests that some extremely poor practice has arisen within the Liberal Democrats fundraising team.
Overall however, it was nothing we hadn’t seen dozens of times before. Political parties offer major donors special access to ministers and key decision makers. It certainly isn’t pretty, but this isn’t news, and it isn’t even denied by political parties. Indeed, for a large part, the register of donations is a record of all those dinners and the money they generate. It is depressing that journalists seem incapable of looking at the issues surrounding party funding (and lobbying for that matter) beyond the occasional fishing expedition.
We have got the political party funding system that he public wants, more or less. Most polls suggest that the public would support a cap on donations, just as much as it opposes any form of state funding (if it was just down to opinion polls, we probably wouldn’t have the state support that we do). However, all that a cap without some model of public funding would achieve is more Lord Strasburgers advising more potential donors to come up with ever more creative ways to make their contributions.
And it would lead to more Lords like Lord Strasburger, who happened to be major funders before being handed an ermine robe and the right to decide on our laws. A new research paper by Seth Thevoz, Simon Radford and Andrew Mell shows that 97.9% of party donations on the register came from people who were subsequently nominated for a peerage.
The fundamental issue with party funding is not the individuals attempting to “buy” influence over specific policy areas; the caricature of Bernie Ecclestone and his infamous million pounds has stayed in the public consciousness for too long. The real issue is that while politicians are busy engaging with and nursing the fragile egos of potential millionaire donors, they aren’t connecting and engaging with the public.
As a successful hedge funder and mathematician, Paul Wilmott probably has a lot of very insightful things to say about the introduction of a financial transaction tax, the policy he was purportedly touting in the documentary. But then, the average disabled person living in social housing and dependent on welfare probably has a lot of insight when it comes to public policy as well. It is the former social class who politicians spend a disproportionate amount of time listening to, not the latter, and overwhelmingly, the policies they come up with tend to reflect that.
No-one can afford to be self-righteous about this. Let’s not kid ourselves that, say, the Green Party would behave any differently if they found themselves in a similar situation. This is a systematic problem, not one that can be solved by simply weeding out the wrong’uns. The media rarely wants to reflect on that because to do so would involve telling the public some hard truths. In this era of ratings and click bait, they have pressures of their own to worry about.
It is possible a new system of state funding combined with greater restrictions on funding isn’t the answer, but if it isn’t then it is about time we heard from people with a better solution; surely the status quo isn’t the least worst option we can come up with?
Fundamentally, I think we should be paying more attention to the people actually donating to political parties than the occasional sting operation. In this respect, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism deserves praise for its work last week in identifying Martin Taylor, a hedge fund manager who until recently was hiding in plain sight.
While his donations were all properly registered, figuring out that this precise Martin Taylor was the one who had donated nearly £600,000 to Labour was investigative journalism worthy of the name. Rachel Oldroyd is right: the Electoral Commission and the laws governing how donations are registered could make this important scrutiny much easier; it is this mess that is at least one of the reasons why I decided to start this project in the first place.
We seem to be losing our ability to be shocked by political scandals; they have become relegated to the background as people increasingly shrug their shoulders and assume that “everyone’s at it”. This is dangerous, as it leads to less scrutiny and more complacency. Somehow we need to relearn our ability to be shocked, and to put that outrage to better use.