Auctions like these demand a re-think on party funding

No wonder the public is disenchanted with politics

Click to follow
The Independent Online

We have now reached the point in our electoral journey when we put our tray tables and our seat backs in the upright position, and very soon we'll be arriving at the polling booth to feel again the warm embrace of democracy. Aah... democracy. The noblest of concepts, bequeathed by the Ancient Greeks, and nurtured, protected and exported around the world ever since. So how fitting is it, as part of this high-minded political system, that ministers of the Crown sell everything but their souls to the highest bidder?

This was the scene at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London on Monday night. Only 24 hours earlier, the luminaries of the British film industry had sat down to a meal of limp, fishy terrine and overcooked beef while applauding themselves for their loveliness, but now it was the turn of the Conservative party at play (never a particularly edifying sight, if you ask me). Their annual Black and White ball, a £15,000 a table dinner, is a vehicle to put millions of pounds into the Tories' already well-upholstered coffers, and, just ahead of a general election, it's a very significant affair.

So some of the Conservative ads you'll be seeing before polling day will have been paid for by those who bought tickets for this week's ball, or who bought auction items on the night. For instance, a bronze bust of Margaret Thatcher went for £210,000 to a Sri Lankan businessman, and a week at Majorca's most expensive property, which sleeps 24, raised £220,000. As you can probably guess, it was a stonkingly rich audience.

But it was some of the lesser auction prizes which caught my eye. Who's for a spot of shoe-shopping with Theresa May? Anyone for a 10km cross-country run with Iain Duncan Smith? Or maybe you'd like to have a chicken dinner prepared for you at his home by Michael Gove? Let's avoid the predictable joke - how much would you pay not (itals) to have dinner with Michael Gove? - and consider the ignominy and desperation of Cabinet ministers offering such tacky items?

This part of the auction was conducted in semi-secrecy via iPads, so we do not know how much money was raised, or indeed which minister had the highest price tag, but how can politicians complain that the general public feel disenchanted and disengaged with the political process when this is the way that the party of Government has to go about fighting an election.

There is another, serious issue here. Do items bought at an auction such as this count as political donations? Many of the prizes went for amounts way beyond their face value, so surely they should, in which case they would be subject to the same rules as political donations, so the question of who and how much should be a matter of public record. Also, foreign nationals would be banned from paying for auction prizes.

The point is this: whether it's funding by trades unions or by filthy rich businessmen, the current system of party funding doesn't work. It brings democracy into disrepute. As fewer and fewer people take part in politics, more and more politicians will realise that the case for state funding of political parties is unanswerable.