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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge