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25 January 2008

Money doesn’t talk

General secretary of the Fabian Society, Sunder Katwala, argues that Hain's resignation must prompt

By Sunder Katwala

Labour should not have needed another wake-up call on party funding. Following Peter Hain’s resignation, Gordon Brown should ensure that he is well on the way to an overhaul of party funding in Britain – and Lords reform too; laying the ghost of cash for honours well before Lord Levy’s memoirs appear this autumn.

Labour must also review its internal election rules, following the damage caused to the government and party by the campaign of the fifth placed candidate in the deputy leadership stakes.

The National Executive Committee are likely to consider spending caps. They should think more radically and remove the funding factor entirely. There should be no need for any substantial political fund-raising, or spending at all, to fight party elections for leader or deputy.

Around 100,000 party members and about 300,000 members of the unions and other affiliates voted in the 2007 deputy leadership. This is a highly informed and engaged electorate. Members want Labour’s elections to be a contact sport – engaging and questioning candidates on values, policy and political strategy.

We don’t need candidates fantasising about running a US primary campaign or adopting the general election techniques of polling, telephone canvassing, glossy leaflets and national press ads – as the failure of Hain’s excessive spending showed.

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These short campaigns need some core administrative support: government special advisers can’t campaign in work time, for example. But they should be primarily volunteer crews of MPs and party members. Candidates need a significant base of 15% of their parliamentary colleagues in order to nominate them to stand.

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If the NEC set very tight ceilings on spending, and capped all donations at £500, we would have better, more engaging elections.

The progressive left is well placed to host a ‘real politics’ election contest. The party holds official hustings in every region. But there is also already a vibrant campaign fringe – the Fabian Society invites every candidate to write and set out their case, kicking off a wide-range of unofficial hustings in which affiliated socialist societies and outside NGOs participate. These include themed events specifically addressing the environment, foreign policy, gender and other issues. Any candidate with more time on their hands will find no shortage of constituency parties, union branches and NGOs willing to offer a platform. There is no need for anybody to invent phantom think-tanks!

Instead of campaigns scrambling to build lists of members, where data protection issues may be overlooked, Labour should invite all members to opt in or out of a system offering a limited number of email communications from all candidates, sent out by the party itself to member and supporter lists. Broadly analogous to the role of party political broadcasts nationally, these would give a fair shot to all candidates. Members could sign-up to get more involved in any particular campaign. Affiliates could choose to adopt a similar approach.

The money saved could be spent on proper politics. Unions and other affiliates could campaign during the contest on issues – ending child poverty, rights at work, closing the gender pay gap and the case for progressive taxation. They could challenge the candidates to set out where they stand.

Taking the money out of future Labour elections would not only prevent the party being brought into disrepute – it would make them stronger sites of political renewal.