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
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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