Labour and the Tories must accept state funding

The political class is in denial over the need for democracy to pay for democracy.

The latest sleaze scandal is a symptom of a chronic malady which will not be cured until all parties accept that external financing of democracy inevitably opens them to the accusation of exchanging influence over policy for receipt of cash. Every continental and commonwealth parliament has gone through the same agony of political scandals arising from parties having to raise cash for core democratic activity from external sources. Every country has had to come to terms with the need for democracy to pay for democracy.

British political parties remain in denial on this issue. The Conservatives remain addicted to big donations from rich business chums. Labour depends on trade union cash and even if the cheques are an aggregate of small payments they allow a small number of union leaders to wield influence and have access.

In the past two decades, both parties have been rocked by allegations over cash for access and influence, or the undemocratic concept that appointment as a legislator may be connected to payment to political parties.

I have seen in so many other countries the same process of parties defending occult external financing and then, as scandal after scandal broke, coming round reluctantly to accept full democratic funding.

The Conservatives would benefit as people would no longer see the party as being the servant of the rich. Labour would benefit as the accusation that unions dictate candidates and policy would fall away. Wealthy businessmen and major trade unions would of course support the Tories and Labour, and campaign for causes and policies just as is the case in other countries. But the public would no longer believe that money-rich donors have undue influence.

I urged these measures after 1997 but failed to persuade Labour ministers. I put up papers to Robin Cook with whom I worked at the Foreign Office but despite Robin's commitment to radical reform he was too nervous of making the case for democracy paying for democracy. At the time, Labour was awash with external business donations even though the £1 million offered by Bernie Ecclestone marred Tony Blair's first term. That should have been a warning but Labour refused to embrace party funding reform. This denial ended with the disaster of the police investigation into the loans for peerages scandal that blackened the last years of Labour in office.

I tried to persuade Labour ministers to amend the seriously defective Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill to bring some extra money for policy work. It was an attempt to augment the already existing level of state funding available.

But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (and to be fair most Labour ministers) were locked in denial on the need for more state funding. They did not want to provoke rows with trade unions and thought the cash from pro-Labour wealthy individuals would keep on flowing in.

Yesterday in the Commons, Francis Maude for the Conservatives proved that he, like his Labour predecessors, remains in denial on democracy paying for democracy as he continued to denounce the idea of state funding. Labour is enjoying the Tories' discomfiture but no Labour MP urged democracy paying for democracy in the exchanges in the Commons.

The most recent scandal is very damaging to David Cameron but Labour's current Schadenfreude is transitory. The only way this problem has been solved in other countries is full democratic, transparent funding for political party work. The rest of the world has learned that lesson. It is worrying that British politics remains in such denial.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister. Follow him on Twitter: @denismacshane

David Cameron speaks at the Alzheimer's Society announcing more funding for research into dementia. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.