The cheek of Michael Gove - it's the Tory party that needs to clean up its finances

If the Education Secretary is as concerned as he claims about party funding, why doesn't he support Labour's proposed £5,000 donation cap?

Michael Gove has some cheek. Yesterday he threw around cheap smears about the Labour Party when in fact it’s the Tories that need to get their house in order.

The financing of political parties is crying out for serious reform. That’s why Ed Miliband has already challenged David Cameron to bring in a statutory limit of £5,000 on all donations. Anyone would have thought Mr Gove would have welcomed such an opportunity to clean up Tory party finances.

Instead he accused Labour of wanting to introduce the "compulsory confiscation of taxpayers’ money to pay for politicians." But he conveniently forgot to tell us that David Cameron’s Tory party pocketed around £4m of taxpayers' cash a year between 2005 and 2010. Maybe Mr Gove might let us know how much of taxpayers’ money went to fund his own shadow office in opposition?

In government, the Tory party no longer accesses this 'short' money. So instead we’ve seen the number of Tory spin doctors and Tory hacks appointed to the taxpapyer-funded government payroll balloon. And this from a government that promised a "limit in the number of Special Advisers".

We’ve also seen wealthy backers continue to fund David Cameron’s Tory party. Naturally, Michael Gove defends those who donate to political parties as indeed would I. But isn’t it a funny coincidence that Mr Adrian Beecroft donated £700,000 to the Conservative Party and was commissioned to write a government report on employment law, which included a recommendation to make it easier to sack people? What a remarkable coincidence that 50 per cent of Tory funding comes from the City, the same people this government has rewarded with mega tax cuts while ordinary hardworking families continue to see their standard of living squeezed.

Funny old world, eh?

So for the avoidance of suspicion, I hope Michael Gove agrees we should have absolute transparency in the financing of political parties. With that in mind, perhaps he can tell us whether he has attended any of the private Tory dinners for donors that brought in a whopping £1,042,970.93 in the last quarter alone?

Indeed, in recent weeks we have all enjoyed reading about Mr Gove’s dinners out on the town, so I’ve no doubt we would all look forward to learning more about who the Education Secretary wines and dines with when fundraising for Conservative head office.

Of course one reason the Tory Party increasingly turns to ‘big money’ and won’t introduce a £5,000 donation cap is pure self interest – there simply aren’t enough grassroots members left to sustain them. Under David Cameron, Tory membership has dropped like a stone. In some key marginal seats, like Sherwood, they have just 30 members.

While Tory membership is withering away, Labour’s active membership is on the increase. And whereas the Tory party has been forced to rely on big wealthy donors, the biggest chunk of our income is from our ordinary members.

Since we as a party are more rooted in our communities, we’re selecting more Labour candidates from all walks of life such as former soldier Jon Wheale in Burton, teacher Mari Williams in Cardiff North, businessman James Frith in Bury North and stay-at-home mum Lisa Forbes in Peterborough, to name just a few.

Of course our candidates have links with ordinary men and women in the workplace who are members of a trade union. Labour MPs and candidates from all backgrounds and outlooks have such links because we share the same commitment to the values of equality and social justice. That doesn’t mean we all sign up to every union policy, but nor should it come as a surprise when we campaign alongside trade unionists on issues such as employment rights. Despite Mr Gove suggesting otherwise, I rather suspect he actually knows that.

Meanwhile, David Cameron’s attempts at modernisation of the Conservative Party hit the buffers a long time ago. Just this summer we’ve learnt of the existence of a nasty outfit called Traditional Britain that campaigns for "traditional values in the Tory Party". Many of us are somewhat surprised David Cameron hasn’t shown any leadership and insisted membership of Traditional Britain become incompatible with Tory membership.

Given concerns about this fringe group, I wonder if Mr Gove is able to reassure us that no Traditional Britain members have been selected as candidates or taken part in the selections that have so far taken place in the 40 Conservative target constituencies?

But if the Tory Party wants a serious discussion about party funding, I’m sure Labour campaigners would welcome them to the table. So come on Michael, if you are as concerned as you claim about party funding, why not support a £5,000 donation cap – what exactly are you scared of?

Education Secretary Michael Gove leaves 10 Downing Street on 19 December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South. 

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.