Democracy Ltd by Bobby Friedman: Formula wrong

British elections used to be heroically corrupt.

On 15 September 1830 William Huskisson, the Tory statesman and local MP, was killed while attending the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The by-election that followed “found over £100,000 (£10m today) being dispensed for the benefit of a mere 4,400 voters”, according to Antonia Fraser in Perilous Question, her brilliant account of the battle for the Reform Act 1832.

British elections used to be heroically corrupt. Even after the introduction of the secret ballot in the Ballot Act 1872, staggering sums were paid out by competing candidates. “Not only could it be said that corrupt practices had increased, but the expenditure incurred at the last election was excessive,” opined the Earl of Northbrook when the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act was going through parliament in 1883. In the preceding general election, in 1880, the Conservative and Liberal Parties had between them spent roughly £2.5m – or £210m in today’s money.

Of that £2.5m, no more than £50,000 was spent by the central party organisations – the rest was spent at the constituency level. The controls that were introduced then, and progressively tightened right up to 1983, were all focused on constituency expenditure during the final few weeks of an election campaign. These controls, though necessary, were clearly not sufficient to cope with modern campaigning – increasingly centralised and extending over many months (sometimes years) before the election starting pistol was fired.

Comprehensive spending controls, with a ban on overseas donations and much stricter rules on the identities of donors, were brought in by the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). As home secretary, I was the minister responsible for this act but its provenance was a magisterial report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the chairmanship of Lord Neill.

In the closing years of Labour’s last opposition, we were increasingly successful in exploiting a succession of allegations of “sleaze” that had engulfed John Major’s government. But we were daft to imply that the Tories had a monopoly of sin.

In late autumn 1997 the Bernie Ecclestone affair blew up. Ecclestone, the Formula 1 boss,had given £1m to the Labour Party before the election. In mid-October 1997 he met Tony Blair to protest about a planned EU-wide ban on tobacco advertising, on which Formula 1 was heavily dependent.

Though the pre-PPERA rules did not require full disclosure of donations, the fact of Ecclestone’s largesse and his lobbying against the EU ban inevitably and quickly hit the press. The facts were damaging and so, too, as Tony very quickly acknowledged, was its handling. It severely dented our reputation as a party trying to conduct our politics in a better way. Bobby Friedman understandably devotes a chapter of his book to this saga – entirely fair if you’re writing one with the subtitle How Money and Donations Corrupted British Politics.

What undermines Friedman’s wider case is the sloppy way he has put this book together, which is a shame, given that the subjectmatter is so timely. “In the wake of the Ecclestone scandal,” Friedman writes, “Blair saw that reform could no longer be avoided and he asked Lord Neill’s Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate the system of donations.”

That is simply incorrect. All this happened before the Ecclestone scandal blew up. There was an explicit commitment in the May 1997 Labour manifesto to ask the Neill committee “to consider how the funding of political parties should be regulated and reformed”, a reference to which was in the Queen’s Speech in May, with further details provided by Tony Blair to the party conference on 30 September 1997.

This is not the only irritating error in the book. We are told, for instance, about a donation to David Lloyd George of £50,000 in 1921, “equivalent to over £12m today”; a few pages later there’s a reference to Lloyd George selling baronetcies for “£25,000 (around £1.7m in current money)”. They can’t both be right. In fact, neither figure is: £50,000 in 1921 is about £1.9m in today’s prices, and £25,000 therefore £950,000.

Friedman recites at some length his version of the cross-party talks on party funding, on which I led for the Labour Party, under the chairmanship of Hayden Phillips, a retired civil servant.

In the summer of 2007 we were indeed tantalisingly close to a deal but Friedman is plain wrong in suggesting that the breakdown was Labour’s. Don’t take my word for it. This is what David Heath, the Liberal Democrat representative at the talks, said: “For the Conservatives to now, in effect, walk away is a tragedy and very short-sighted on their part,” and that the Conservative Party’s attitude to a deal “changed . . . markedly over the summer [of 2007] at about the same time as a certain Lord Ashcroft moved into Central Office”.

Away from his panting, conspiratorial narrative, Friedman is more sober in his last, analytical chapter on the future. He makes the crucial point that we already have state funding of political parties; that the total sum needed “to rid the political system of big money comes to around £23m a year – or roughly the cost of a postage stamp for every voter. This is not introducing state funding – just increasing it by a little under 50 per cent.” He considers the idea of a funding mechanism of, say, £3 for every voter; or, in my view, a better variant: that as people vote, they could if they wish tick a box to allocate such a sum to their party.

It may be that Ed Miliband’s reform will start the process to get how we fund politics into better order and cut the reliance on large donations. We need to. But we should also acknowledge that we are light years from the endemic corruption of the 19th century, and that by comparison with many comparable countries, party politics in the UK is both relatively clean and a remarkable bargain.

Jack Straw is the MP for Blackburn (Labour)

Tony's crony, Bernie Ecclestone. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear