And so rolls on the juggernaut of government scandal. Secret videos of Conservative co-treasurer Peter Cruddas selling access to David Cameron and George Osborne emerged at the weekend and the ramifications are far from over. Cruddas has resigned but there is increasing pressure on Number 10 to disclose more specific details about party donations and who gained ‘access’ and when.
This is not the first scandal of its kind, and no party can claim any moral superiority when it comes to cash-for-something corruption. In 1994, Neil Hamilton MP came under fire in cash-for-questions scandal involving Mohammed Al-Fayed. In 1997, eyebrows were raised when it transpired that Bernie Eccleston had donated £1million to the Labour Party, which soon after its election decided to relax laws on tobacco advertising in Formula 1. Labour was subsequently forced to return the donation. Most recently, in 2009, four Labour peers came under the spotlight due to cash-for-influence allegations. This is not new news.
But when the scandal itself links directly to the highest offices in the government and the Conservative Party, questions must be raised again about the quality of democracy in this country. It is just 2 years since the widespread expenses scandal tarnished our Parliament, and yet here we are again, with another example of how easy it is to find corruption in the offices of Downing Street.
Cruddas has quite rightly resigned. But the questions this issue raises will continue to be asked. At a time when trust in our elected officials is at an all-time low and electorate apathy is on the increase, how can party officials be so arrogant as to think this is acceptable practice? Cameron’s apparent ignorance to the situation has yet to be proved true either way – time will tell. His refusal, however, to reveal who has dined at Number 10 with him raises further issues of trust. I understand the security aspect of revealing these names, and that yes, the Prime Minister does have a right to some privacy in his home. But when private dinners are taking place in Number 10, by rights a state-owned taxpayer-funded residency, these arguments lose weight. If our Prime Minister has nothing to hide, then this list should be revealed and any further allegations of impropriety put to bed.
The issues were discussed at length on BBC Breakfast this morning. It was mentioned that trade union funding has much the same influence on the Labour Party, and that cash for access and influence is nothing new. I agree with these sentiments, as a I detailed above. I may be accused of being a Labour apologist for what I am about to say but I think the distinction is important. Political parties in this country depend on party donations. Apathy is rife in our society. Daily examples of ignorance and disillusionment can be found everywhere. For those reasons alone, party membership numbers have plummeted and thus the argument for allowing party donations is understandable. People, rightly, want to donate money to the causes they believe in.
Having said that, I do not see trade union donation and private Tory interests as one and the same. Trade union donations and influence are surely a natural consequence of a political party founded on the principles of organised labour and working-class rights. Without trade unions, there would be no Labour Party. Many would argue that without millionaires there would be no Conservative party, but the Tory party itself was not formally founded to protect the interests of millionaires and business. Property, prosperity etc, yes. But there is no exclusive rights for millionaires and private business interests in the formation of the Conservative Party, despite what it may have become. The Labour Party is born out of the trade union movement, so can we really argue that union influence is identical to that of what is happening now within the Tory party? I think not.
Whilst that is not to say that the intentions of trade unions are always good, I would side with the unions any day – fighting for fair pay, workers’ rights and pensions – over the elite interests of millionaires that I should imagine frequent dinners with Cameron and Osborne. But I am betraying my political leanings here, and I don’t think this is of great importance to this blog entry because it’ll simply descend into name-calling and yaboo politics, and we see enough of that in the House of Commons on any given day.
Clearly something must be done. Suggestions were made on BBC Breakfast this morning that laws on political party funding must be changed. Our electorate is disengaged from the political processes so fundamental to the smooth running of our country. Trust has to be rebuilt in all arenas of our political system, and this must mean looking at every piece of legislation relating to the operation of our political parties and institutions. The three major parties must be an example of clean, fair practice – the rest, I think, will follow. If nothing changes and the shrouds of secrecy over Number 10 prevail, Joe Bloggs on the street will again see this as another example that Parliament has lost touch with the electorate, and that the only way democracy works in Britain is if you have a hefty bank balance and the right contacts. We shall see.