Comment: Is Lord Neill's new broom sweeping too close for comfort?

Vote early, vote often is New Labour's modus operandi with the plebiscites on devolution
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALL GOVERNMENTS need the odd vitamin shot of accountability into their bottoms. Tomorrow, in the findings of Lord Neill's inquiry into standards in public life, this one will get a more substantial and painful dose than it expected.

Lord Neill has taken to his brief enthusiastically - too much so for the Prime Minister's comfort. Asked to lay down guidelines in the wake of Bernie Ecclestone's exceedingly large donation to New Labour, Lord Neill has rightly concluded that the probity of parties is in greater peril than has previously been admitted.

As the proud possessor of a new broom, he has not only set out to sweep clean the obviously murky corners of blind-trust funding and anonymous business donations. His report is set to tear away the decorous screens parties primly erect around their fund-raising in order to hide their not so nice little earners from the rest of us.

So a cap is to be proposed on party spending on elections to Westminster, the European Parliament and all other assemblies. It is expected to be some pounds 8m short of what was spent in 1997, and will prevent elections turning into a grotesque spending contest. Individual and company donations - even those at relatively low levels, and services in kind - will have to be declared. Parties will be called on to disclose at their annual conferences all financial backing, and not just the parts that show off their virility. One of the cleverest parts of New Labour stagecraft has been to emphasise just how much tycoons will pay to be close to it.

But it is the parts they don't mention that we must keep asking about. For all the "fairness not favours" rhetoric directed at the unions, a hell of a lot of services are provided for the party through this nexus. Neither side has been keen to tell us how this link works, and the details of what is agreed in return. When the money was sloshing the Tories' way and Central Office was inventing spurious reasons why donations should remain confidential, Labour was rightly scathing. It is unacceptable for a party that preached the need for candour for so long, to exploit the same loopholes now that it is the recipient of largesse.

Behind Lord Neill's barristerly exterior there beats the heart of a true democrat. He wants us to know what is going on in our names. He has not fallen for the siren call of state-funding for political parties, a ruse that sounds marvellous but which has led, in Continental Europe, to vast scandals even more damaging than our home-grown sleaze because it drags through the mire the state and its officials as well as the implicated individuals and politicians when corruption arises - as it inevitably does.

By offering instead tax credits for donors giving up to pounds 500 annually, he hopes to return parties to the influence of mass membership rather than exacerbate the drift towards cartel politics, in which big business donors take over the guiding role in parties. For too long, New Labour has disguised the potential conflict of interest by claiming that anyone who raises doubts about business influence is falling into bad Old Labour habits of bashing the rich. But it is not their riches we object to. It is the use of that wealth to secure access and influence that are not otherwise available.

You would have to have been very naive, or very cynical, to see in the stalls, parties and sponsorship banners the amount of brand-name dosh washing through the Labour Party conference this year without thinking that this is potentially unhealthy.

It may, of course, be too late. Will the prospect of tax relief be enough to draw the people back to the People's Party? New Labour is reported to have lost up to a 100,000 members since the election. "Naturally," says an official when I ask, "We won't tell you the exact figure." While we're at it, could we have a rule which impels parties to tell us how many members they have? It doesn't seem an unnatural thing to ask.

Perhaps we have become so disenchanted with politics that no amount of inducements will lure us to take responsibility again. The Conservatives have lost almost half their membership since 1992. New Labour's membership drive is in reverse thrust. But if you believe that democracy is a living, breathing and as such a vulnerable thing, there is no alternative but to try. Parties always belong, in the end, to those who fund them. Those of us who are worried by the prospect of a corporate state had better start shelling out our pocket money.

Tony Blair is not bound to accept Lord Neill's recommendations. But having ridden the Tories so hard over their grudging acceptance of Sir Gordon Downey's critical findings in the wake of Cash for Questions, he will find it difficult to duck them.

The part that will cause him most trouble is the proposal for an independent Electoral Commissioner to monitor the fairness of referendums. Vote Early, Vote Often is New Labour's modus operandi, with its plebiscites on Scottish and Welsh devolution and the Ulster vote to be followed by plebiscites on a change to the electoral system and another on entry into a single currency. This has so far not been accompanied by guidelines stating that these referendums should be conducted so that they are not skewed by the formation of the question, the timing of the ballot and the access to funding and media towards the Government's preferred outcome.

Every discussion I heard at Labour conference about the possible dates for future referendums, was dominated by discussion of the timing that would prove most beneficial to Labour's chances of re-election. So what is touted as an extension of democratic involvement is in danger of turning out to be another unchecked arm-twist by the Executive.

The referendum on power-sharing in Northern Ireland was hardly a model of democratic process which one would want to see repeated in other situations. It was only acceptable because the moral imperative towards ending violence is so overwhelming. The state threw its full weight behind a "Yes" vote. Opponents received a fraction of the air-time allotted to those in favour. The Government could spend what was needed from public funds for its campaign while opponents had to raise funds themselves.

Kant tells us that "the great goods cannot live together" and, not for the last time, Kant is right. It is better that this referendum were won than lost. But it is no model for future votes on entry into EMU and on a change to the electoral system that would have the net effect of making it harder for voters to oust a government it no longer wanted. Such plebiscites must be more evenly monitored to prevent their being presented as a vote on the popularity of the Government. Their significance is far more important and lasting than that.

Peter Mandelson once remarked that, "the era of representative democracy [may be] coming to an end." Like Kant, Mr Mandelson is often most right when his statements are most controversial.

The representative nature of Parliament is waning - not least because that is what party managers and politicians want. But that is also the very time for us to watch hawkishly what they intend to put in place of the thing they claim to be obsolete. The first and last rule of democracy is caveat populus.