Leading Article: Coming clean is not the same as being in the clear

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THE LABOUR Party is again to be congratulated on publishing the list of donors giving more than pounds 5,000, but its virtue is a little like that of the criminal who pleads guilty rather than pretending to be innocent. The whole point of publishing the names of donors is so that everyone can be satisfied that there is no connection between money and political reward. There is something faintly comic in publishing only to be damned: 28 of the 97 donors on yesterday's list have been given peerages, advisory posts or even, as in the case of Lord Sainsbury, a ministerial job. At least we admit that we are a bunch of venal influence-peddlers, seems to be the Labour line, whereas the Tories tried to cover up their similar crimes.

Indeed, the Labour position is definitely preferable to Conservative secrecy. But publication is not enough. The Prime Minister tried to argue in his televised apology for his conduct over Bernie Ecclestone's pounds 1m that transparency was all that mattered. Leave aside the small fact that, if he had had his way, we would have found out only yesterday that Mr Ecclestone was a donor, and then only that he had given more than pounds 5,000 to the Labour Party.

But the point about openness is that everyone can see and judge for themselves whether an appointment or policy change has been bought; mere disclosure does not make the selling of influence right. "In fact," in Mr Ecclestone's case, "it was wrong," as President Clinton put it in another televised apology - and Mr Blair admitted as much at the time by handing the pounds 1m back.

The various sinecures handed out to other donors are more difficult to assess. Who is to say that Lord Sainsbury is not the best person to be a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry - other than Labour backbenchers with electoral mandates to grind, and carpers who point out that in his final few years in charge of the shop he was outflanked by Tesco? Of Mr Ecclestone, the Prime Minister said that it would be wrong to discriminate against him simply because he had given the party lots of money. What is the poor Labour Party to do, Mr Blair implied, if a rich person who wants to donate to the cause of building a new, young country turns out - quite independently - to be supremely well qualified for the job of advising the Government on millennium bugs or domes?

Well, the first thing it could do is to recognise the danger of conflicts of interest and do its utmost to avoid the appearance thereof. That requires an element of sacrifice. Certainly, it would have been more in keeping with Mr Blair's claim to be "purer than pure" if he had simply declared: people can give money to the party or they can work for the Government, but they cannot do both. Instead he was reduced to pleading that fighting election campaigns is dead expensive, and that the Tories have more money. To which the answer is that the Conservatives will be under the same restrictions.

Any free society has to balance the right to free expression with curbing the prerogatives of wealth. The more rigid ideas of imposing cash limits on either the amount that parties can spend, or the amount that individuals can donate, are not likely to prove both workable and consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights. But we are confident that the increased transparency promised by Lord Neill's committee, when it reports in October, will mark a further big step forward. It is likely to propose the immediate declaration of amounts greater than pounds 1,000.

The committee could seat itself up as a permanent watchdog to advise on individual awkward cases, but in general the ethical initiative should come from the politicians themselves. The better we can see what they are up to, the more they need to do more, to make sure that the committee is purer than pure.