22 November 1997
Cash for fags?
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
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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