Inside Westminster: Our political conferences have turned into glorified trade fairs

Companies are paying political parties millions for access to their MPs

This weekend as Labour Party delegates gathered for their annual conference in Brighton there was no shortage of free food, drink and entertainment on offer. On Saturday night members – including a shimmying Harriet Harman – danced the night away at a ceilidh hosted by Scottish Power.

That’s the same Scottish Power that has been a frequent target of Labour opprobrium as one of the Big Six “rip-off”  energy companies. In July the company reported a doubling of profits to £712m, while in October it announced that  energy bills would rise by 7 per cent.

The following night Ed Miliband shared a platform with executives from Horizon Nuclear Power and rather awkwardly thanked them for their sponsorship of Labour’s Welsh night.

That’s the same Horizon who are looking for long-term political support – and significant consumer “subsidies” – to build two new nuclear reactors in Wales where Labour are in power.

And on Monday lunchtime anyone feeling peckish could enjoy a free lunch and a discussion with Labour’s Shadow Employment Minister about youth aspiration, paid for by Kentucky Fried Chicken.

KFC, of course, is a business especially sensitive to any move by Labour to increase the minimum wage.

But it’s not just the delegates who are benefiting from such corporate largesse – or just the Labour Party. This conference season dozens of companies, trade associations and lobbyists are paying Britain’s political  parties millions of pounds for access to their ministers, shadow ministers, MPs and councillors.

Just to get a pass to enter the conferences these organisations are stumping up as much as £1,000 per  person. Holding a special event at the Labour  conference, such as the Scottish Power ceilidh, requires a  “donation”  of around £7,000 to the party – plus extra to cover  the costs of actually staging the event.

And to put up a 3-metre by 4-metre exhibition stand (which you are guaranteed will be visited by leading party figures) will set you back up to £13,000.

It is very telling that Labour this year accepted money for an exhibition stand to promote the tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris and lobby against the party’s policy on plain cigarette packaging. The move was fought by the Party’s shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burham, but he was overruled by officials.

Electoral Commission records show why, exposing just how lucrative this source of income has becomes for our political parties. In their most recent accounts the Conservatives reveal that they raised just £747,000 in membership fees last year – but £4.2m from conferences.

Labour raked in £3.37m from so called “commercial activities”, including conferences, while even the Liberal Democrats raised £1.4m from events. One senior party official admitted that what was once a forum to debate and decide party policy has now become little more than a “glorified trade fair” with almost as many lobbyists as delegates.

The truth is that while big donations to political parties have been cleaned up and made more transparent, the same cannot be said for the money made at party conferences. These companies and lobbyists do not pay for passes or fund events out of the goodness of their hearts: they are buying access and the possibility of influence.

To give just one example. If a company or lobbyist meets a minister in Westminster, that encounter has to be officially declared for all to see. If they take them out for dinner the hospitality has to be registered.

But if that same lobbyist met that same minister at a party conference, there is no need for the conversation to be registered. If that same lobbyist took out that same minister for a lavish dinner, none of us would be any of the wiser. Is it any wonder that a report out on Tuesday from the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that only 28 per cent of the public believed MPs are “dedicated to doing a good job for the public”?

There are certain simple steps that political parties could take to address the problems. First, all ministers and shadow minister attending party conference should be compelled to register the hospitality they receive.

Second, the parties should publish the name of the companies and lobbyists who are given passes to attend these events. And third, the public should  be given a clearer breakdown of exactly how hospitality  donations at conference work.

But this is really just the start. What is needed in the longer term is a deal on party funding that takes the corporate money out of politics altogether.

Every survey shows that the public do not want to pay for this out of their taxes. But that view is wrong. Politics, whether we like it or not, affects every aspect of our lives and the power and influence of politicians is too big to be open to abuse.

We need a system where the only paymasters politicians have are us.

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