Preventing the Tories tilting the political scales (again)

Last week saw the largest Government defeat yet in the Lords during this Parliament, putting a brake on Conservative plans to cut trade union funding to the Labour Party. The move they are attempting to make MUST be coupled with a fair cap on individual donations to get ALL the big money out of politics. Ministers repeatedly allege that their bill is not about party funding, but this is arrant poppycock. Plainly, it IS party funding reform but it is for one party only.

This attempt to tilt the political scales in a Conservative direction is hardly without precedent. In this Parliament alone we have seen up to 1.9 million registered voters unilaterally wiped off the electoral roll, cuts to the funding which enables opposition parties to be effective, and of course boundary changes continue apace. In the year up to the election 57% of Labour funds came from trade unions, while 59% of ALL individual donations to all parties put together went to the Conservatives. To stem one form of funding, without the remotest movement on the other form, is another naked attempt to entrench Conservative undiluted power. It is also a breach of the Conservative manifesto which promised:

In the next Parliament, we will legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for subscriptions to political parties. AND We will continue to seek agreement on a comprehensive package of party funding reform.

They have forgotten altogether the second part of their commitment. I found myself in rare agreement with the veteran Conservative, Lord (Patrick) Cormack, who conceded in debate, “Frankly, to suggest that the Bill is not singling out a political party is disingenuous.”

We had support, also, from the independent Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord (Paul) Bew, which recommended a comprehensive package of reform in 2011. He said, “To take one element, whether it be the role of trade unions or of business in party funding, and to deal with it separately is not in the spirit of that report.”

Former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Lord (Michael) Forsyth even told his colleagues “We are provoking a confrontation that will do none of us any good and certainly will not do the political system any good.”

Ministers were defeated by 93 votes on the motion I originally drafted. Now that a Select Committee is to be convened, I hope it will examine trade union funding and individual donations together, and look too at the dysfunctional rules around spending.

As readers of LDV know better than most, last year all parties swamped marginal, targeted constituencies with money from central funds which, as long as it did not mention the name of the candidate, was completely outside the constituency limits. Spending on material of that nature therefore hugely exceeds those limits, and it is clear from the figures published by the Electoral Commission this week that the Conservative Party, and no doubt the other parties, made huge use of this loophole. The figures show they spent £4 million on “unsolicited material to voters”: suppose they spread that around a maximum of 200 target seats. Do the maths!

I concur with Michael Crick of Channel 4 when he says these may be the official figures, but that he does not believe them. A comprehensive package of reform could deal with all of this, and now is our best chance in this Parliament to secure such a package.

Finally, I must add that while my principled argument for seeking a balanced package has scarcely been disputed, some Lib Dems have argued in these past few days that we shouldn’t be in the business of helping the Labour Party. I have no special affection for them either, but this Bill is not just about weakening Labour; it is about strengthening and entrenching Conservative power. I’m a liberal and I’m against that sort of thing !

Paul Tyler is Constitutional Reform Spokesperson in the House of Lords. His full speech on the motion this week is available here.

1 comment to Preventing the Tories tilting the political scales (again)

  • Patricia vincent

    Party funding of elections urgently needs reforming. With the help of Lord Ashcroft’s dubiously gained millions the Conservative Party was able to chuck vast amounts of money at advertising slots on TV, billboards, touring, PR, etc. completely skewering the results in the marginal seats and effecting an overall majority in the last election for the Tories.
    This makes a mockery of democracy and is completely unethical. I despise the Conservatives for taking unfair advantage of the less well funded political parties, who do not have a millionaire base, but tend to represent the less well off in society. Money, it seems will get you anything you want – the Conservative Mantra. This must not happen again.

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