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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.