Johann Hari: These political donation scandals will keep happening until parties have state funding

We have a chance to buy back our politicians from the rich and set them to work for us
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It's tempting to see it as a late present found lingering under the tree. All together now: On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love sent to me 12 Tory sleaze scandals, 11 Lords-a-leaping into seats they've bought, and a partridge in a pear tree.

This week, a red-suited, white-bearded parliamentary standards commissioner (or did I imagine that attire?) announced that David Cameron, Michael Howard, George Osborne and a slew of senior Tories are being investigated for hawking the dining rooms of the Lords to the highest bidder. It turns out some Tories are offering a chance to dine in the Palace of Westminster with their senior MPs for a bung of £500 to the party.

But, however alluring a long festive gloat might seem, it would be wrong. In the current British political system, we demand that our politicians hawk around for private cash. Until we change the system, we have no right to act shocked when they do what it demands. All political parties - no matter what their ideological flavour - are enmeshed in this soft corruption.

Every single donor to the Labour party who has handed over more than a million pounds since 1997 has been ennobled, a fact that has brought Scotland Yard to the door of Downing Street. The Liberal Democrats have had to hand back £2m they received from a tycoon later revealed to be a crook. George Galloway's Respect "Coalition" received 30 per cent of its 2005 election budget from a man who believes gay people should be executed. And on, and on.

It is not a question of individual moral failure on the part of our politicians. It is a question of hard cash. If we refuse to pay for our political campaigns, our politicians are forced to ask somebody else to do it.

The obvious problem vomited up by this is public cynicism. But it brings a deeper problem too. Slowly, subtly, this dependence on donations from the super-rich changes the laws you and I have to obey and the protections we enjoy.

Let's look at a concrete example. In 2005, the most recent year we have figures for, 220 workers and 361 members of the public were killed in the workplace. The Health and Safety Executive found that 70 per cent of them were a direct result of managers knowingly gambling with human life to save cash. They were people like Simon Jones, a 24-year-old who was sent to unload cargo on board a ship - one of the most dangerous jobs in the country - with just a few minutes "training", and was crushed to death within two hours.

Corporate negligence is one of the biggest public safety issues in Britain, killing 407 people every year, eight times more than Islamic fundamentalist violence. But has any government dealt with this? Three successive Labour manifestos pledged a corporate manslaughter Bill to stem the deaths, and three times it was batted away as "not a priority".

Finally, after eight years - and more than 3000 workplace deaths caused by corner-cutting - the Government has introduced a Bill this year, but it is so full of holes that campaigners warn it may be close to useless. The Government is not responding to democratic pressure: a recent Mori poll found that 65 per cent of us believe workplace safety will only improve if company directors can be prosecuted for negligence, and want the law changed accordingly.

No - the Government is responding to corporate pressure. Multimillionaire businessmen pay for their parties, so they get some say over what is played on the jukebox. It is nothing so crude as a bribe; it is simply that Tony Blair and the other party leaders internalise the "common sense" of their donors. As in the US, the super-rich acquire an unspoken veto power over the government of the country.

But now - finally - a solution is approaching over the horizon, in the unlikely shape of Sir Hayden Phillips. He is the senior civil servant who has been tasked by Tony Blair to look at the question of state funding of political parties - and he is due to issue his final report in the next few weeks.

If he goes for the whole she-bang and calls for full state funding out of general taxation, this would be the moment when we could buy back our politicians from the rich and set them to work for us. In those US states which have introduced government funding in the past decade - Arizona and Maine - politics have shifted quickly to the left as politicians no longer have to beg the rich for election funds. We could expect to see British politics quietly move closer to social democratic public opinion too.

Of course, the right-wing press has sniffed this and is already asking - why should you, the humble tax-payer, cough up for party politics? But you might as well ask why you should pay for the ballot papers or polling stations or the electricity in the House of Commons. Our democracy depends on parties.

Helena Kennedy's Power Inquiry - set up to tackle public cynicism about politics - pointed out that it would cost each tax-payer just 4p a week to establish an election fund, and each tax-payer could pick a political party to donate this tiny sum to. Isn't that a price worth paying for proper democracy?

Yet, if Sir Hayden does opt for state funding, he can expect to be besieged from both left and right. Some old lefties like Diane Abbot and Tony Benn object to state funding because they fear it will remove the incentive to recruit members, and make parties even more centralised. The solution, they say, is to appeal to find tens of thousands more ordinary members, not replace them with the state.

I share their worries - but all over the world, the mass political party is dead, part of a wider withering of collective organisations. We can spend a lifetime waiting for them to revive, and in the meantime the rich will have more control than ever.

The Tories are playing a more cynical tune, suggesting no state funding but instead a £50,000 cap on donations. This has one nakedly partisan purpose: it would strip Labour of its hefty trade union funding, while leaving the Tories with their broad base of rich donors only somewhat dented. This isn't reasonable: either both parties should move away from their major funder bases, or neither.

This makes the trade unions nervous too, but I think they're missing an opportunity. At the moment they pay £8m a year to be treated - in John Monks' famous phrase - "like embarrassing old aunts". If that donation is picked up by the state, the unions will find themselves with a fat fund to influence the government in an more open way: through advertising campaigns that sway public opinion. It's a healthier way to achieve the same goals.

This January, Sir Hayden Phillips has an opportunity finally to clear away the stink hanging over British politics. If he - and our politicians - don't seize this moment, the latest Tory scandal will not be the last.