Conservative party conference. Photo: Getty
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Angela Eagle: The Tories have broken their promises on political reform

David Cameron has reinforced the political power of a few big money donors and well established vested interests, argues the shadow leader of the Commons.  Now that his grassroots have taken flight he is even more reliant on the privileged few he uses his power to support.

At their coming conference the Tories apparently plan to announce that their membership has risen. The problem is that it hasn’t. Since David Cameron was elected it is estimated a staggering 118,600 members have fled the Party, a number equivalent to the population of Tunbridge Wells.

Today I’ve written to Grant Shapps to urge him to come clean on Tory membership. Instead of falsely inflating the numbers by adding in ‘friends’ and ‘supporters’ as it is reported he will do, he should own up and reveal the true scale of Dave Cameron's lost army of Conservative members.

This latest attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes says it all about the Tories and their broken promises on political reform. They have failed to reform their own party, failed to reform our politics, and are now fiddling the figures to cover it up.

Before the election David Cameron promised he was going to “fix” our broken politics. He opined about the problem of a few donors buying influence. He said he was going to shine the “light of transparency on lobbying in our country”.

But the second he stepped over the threshold of Number Ten, he reverted to Tory type and started doing the complete opposite.

Latest figures show that hedge funds have given the Tories a staggering £45.7 million. Hedge funds have been given a tax cut worth £145 million. This year alone £5 million has been donated to the Tories by people who had private dinners with the PM and senior ministers. And the Lobbying Act was just a Trojan horse for an attack on charities and campaigners while lobbying was made less transparent, not more.

On every test he set himself, David Cameron has failed. He hasn’t built a better politics, he’s done all he can to reinforce the political power of a few big money donors and well established vested interests.  Now that his grassroots have taken flight he is even more reliant on the privileged few he uses his power to support.

In Labour, we don’t just talk about political reform, we have put our money where our mouth is. We’ve implemented a root and branch reform of our membership structure to ensure that we reach out to millions of working people around the UK. We have written our policy programme with the input of hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve travelled the country talking to people who don’t vote about why, and we have come up with a comprehensive programme of political reform that we will implement in government. This includes reform of our legislative system and giving the public a say at PMQs, a universal register of all professional lobbyists backed by a code of conduct and sanctions, and a comprehensive devolution of power from Whitehall to local communities.

During my People’s Politics Inquiry I met Karina, a young mum who has never voted. She told me that politics turns her off because all she sees is a Government that helps their mates at the top. She’s not the only one who feels like that. Voter turnout has been in decline for decades, and active involvement in politics is in decline too.

If the Tories want to rebuild trust in politics they must start by being open about the state of their membership. But, much more importantly, they need to stop talking about political reform and start acting.

The choice between Labour and the Tories is clear. A hollowing-out Tory Party who want to keep political power in the hands of a few. Or a vibrant Labour movement, who want to put power back in the hands of the country.

Angela Eagle is the Member of Parliament for Wallasey.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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