Thursday, 24 January 2008
Our democracy needs a more honest funding system than this political football
Peter Hain was undoubtedly one of the most talented members of the Brown cabinet. But in the light of the Electoral Commission's decision to refer his late declaration of donations to his deputy leadership campaign to the police, he understandably felt he needed to resign as Work and Pensions Secretary. To a considerable extent, this government has been hoist by the petard of its own stricter rules for transparency. Hain is not the first talented minister to be forced to fall on his sword, and he won't be the last. Transgressions that were commonplace under previous governments - but which remained hidden from scrutiny - lead to regular resignations and media frenzies. Yet few believe that British politics is notably corrupt. Far from it: it is much cleaner than most countries, where the events that excite so much coverage here would be laughed off. Of course, it is right to have a system which seeks to ensure the highest standards of probity. But it should be about doing just that, and not an obstacle course designed to catch out the unwary or distracted politician like some sort of macabre version of musical chairs. It is time to reform the whole business. First, as I have argued before, we should bite the bullet on state funding for political parties. Sanctimonious opponents of change should be honest about just how much is already spent by taxpayers on honing the latest soundbite from David Cameron or sermon by Nick Clegg. And we should look at how much the Electoral Commission is costing taxpayers not to fund political parties. We should then restrict individual donations to £5000, with a lower individual threshold for donations made by agreement with members or shareholders by unions or public companies. We should then ban poster advertising for parties, which are surely nor more a wasteful eyesore. A single Commons and Commission register should proactively be updated every month, with each MP actively reminded to do so. The Tories may be gleeful now, but they will face the same problems if they are ever re-elected. For the sake our democracy, we need to get it right, and quickly.