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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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