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22 November 1997

Cash for fags?

James Heartfield argues that Labour should not return Bernie Ecclestone's 1 000 000 donation

The decision by parliamentary standards commissioner Sir Patrick Neill that the Labour Party must return the 1 000 000 donation from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is an unwarranted intervention by the state into political party organisation. The fact that Labour sought the ruling - to calm accusations of sleaze - does not take away from the fact that it sets a dangerous precedent. If a senior civil servant can decide what a political party does with its money, then the possibilities of independent political action have been pushed even further back.

Ecclestone's contribution to New Labour's coffers has been seen as an attempt to influence its policy on cigarette advertising. The surprise decision to exempt motor racing from the blanket ban on cigarette advertising is understandably believed to be Ecclestone's pay-off. His access to senior Labour figures like Tony Blair and Health Minister Tessa Jowell, whose husband was a non-executive director with one of the major racing teams Benetton, suggested that all was not quite above board when the decision was made.

LM has said before that Labour's willingness to play the sleaze card would rebound against it. In The Corruption of Politics and the Politics of Corruption I wrote:

'At the moment, New Labour has ridden the sleaze tiger with great success. Allegations of sleaze allowed Labour to distance itself from the Tories' record while adopting many of their market policies. But as these recent hiccups have shown, the perception of sleaze could just as easily turn on Labour. To Blair's irritation, the Conservatives have scored points manufacturing sleaze allegations against his administration in much the same way that he did against theirs.'

But if Labour is unduly influenced by business it is not a matter of sleaze or 'parliamentary standards' - but an outcome of the party's policy of seeking business support. And the proper reaction would be to punish Labour at the polls, not to call on a senior civil servant to decide how a political party should raise its funds.

The outcome of the 'cash for fags' debate will not be cleaner politics, but more state control over political parties. Already the Labour Party is tendering the proposal that political parties should be funded by the state. This is a remarkable response to the perceived problem of the undue influence of business. Instead of being in hock to business interests, political parties would be in hock to the state. Parties funded by the state would lose any semblance of political independence. Just think - what conditions would civil servants put upon Sinn Fein to qualify for funds? Decommissioning arms? Swearing an oath of loyalty to the Crown?

Nor is the lesser proposal that the state should regulate party fund-raising any less alarming. Already there are considerable legal powers for the seizure of funds raised to support the Irish Republican Army. With new regulations on fundraising for political parties, any popular resistance to state power could find itself subject to persecution and the seizure of its finances. The writs and injunctions used by British Coal to sequester the National Union of Mineworkers' funds in the 1984-5 strike would be a model of state regulation of political parties.

In the here and now, the debate about sleaze has one over-riding trajectory - towards the greater regulation of political life in moral terms. Doubtless Tony Blair was peeved when 'anti-corruption' crusader Martin Bell MP, the man in the white suit, challenged Labour in parliament. 'Have we slain one dragon only for it to be replaced by another with a red rose in its mouth?' asked Bell. Critics of New Labour no doubt enjoyed a little schadenfreude at Blair's expense - after all, it was he who campaigned for Bell behind the scenes of the Tatton vote against disgraced Tory Neil Hamilton.

But the inexorable rise of Bell threatens to reduce all political choices to the fairytale world of St George and the Dragon. That kind of moralistic rhetoric represents a closing of political options. 'All power to the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards!' would be the slogan that encapsulates the anti-democratic trend of the politics of corruption. The more authority that the state exercises over political choices, the less influence ordinary people are likely to have. We might balk at Labour's cheesy new friends, but the best qualified judge of parliamentary standards is still the British electorate.

James Heartfield examines New Labour's incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law in the forthcoming LM106, on sale November 27.
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