But in the short term it’s ministers who are squirming. The Tories are getting their own back for Hamilton et al and have even been prepared to dump John Wakeham, who is now finished as chair of the Press Complaints Commission. But they have found it hard to make the charges stick. Labour, having sold Enron seats at a dinner for a piddling £38,000, look like weathering the storm.
But Labour ministers now know that unless they act quickly they are going to enter the next election campaign with two big black marks over their heads. One over the financial basis of elective politics. The public doesn’t like state funding but if private donations are restricted what is the alternative?
The other is more profound. Labour was founded as a vehicle to advance the interests of trade unions. That is why Bob Crow of the RMT has been chivvying Frank Dobson, Robin Cook and other sponsored MPs: why should his members pay Labour if it gets nothing back?
Party chair Charles Clarke has said giving money gives you no purchase whatsoever over policy. But is this approach sustainable? Any British government is inevitably going to spend a time dealing with both sides of business. Companies want handouts, exemptions, regulations, approvals and permissions so it is rational for them to spend money on access and influence.
The problem is where to draw the line over access and influence. Enron’s money bought interviews with ministers but did not – most neutrals agree – secure specific changes in policy.
Might we agree donations to open doors are permissible provided the identities of those who go through are a matter of public record?
- David Walker writes for The Guardian.