Political parties should not rely on vested interests

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The Independent Online

Curbing donations by the unions and big business may make life harder for party treasurers but it would remove the public's suspicion that our politicians are for hire.

It was only a matter of time before the trade unions realised they were not going to get value for money for their political donations from New Labour. They may have been a little slow on the uptake, but this summer's union conference season could mark a turning point in the relationship between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement.

The RMT has just decided to cut its annual contribution to Labour from £110,000 to £20,000. The general secretary of the Communications Workers' Union remarked yesterday: "Our members are starting to feel distanced from the party. We are beginning to feel that we are not being listened to, particularly on employment law." And John Edmonds, the leader of the GMB, has warned that "it is going to be a very difficult conference season and a very difficult Labour Party conference".

So it will be, but we should welcome that. Whatever the merits of state funding for parties, and this newspaper has some sympathy for that, it has always been unsatisfactory for our politicians to rely on vested interests for money. The last decade has pointed up sharply the dangers that can arise when businessmen and women get too close to politicians. Before that we were treated to the image of trade union leaders dictating policy to the Labour prime ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. Now we find the RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, impertinently demanding that Labour MPs agree to his policy demands in exchange for financial help.

"Fairness not favours" was the New Labour soundbite for its relationship with the trade unions, and the party in government has lived up to it. Would that ministers had shown a similarly resolute attitude to the likes of Bernie Ecclestone and Richard Desmond. Curbing donations by the unions and big business may make life harder for party treasurers but it would remove the public's suspicion that our politicians are for hire. It would also provide a powerful incentive to increase individual memberships and find new, innovative ways to "reconnect with the public" as the modish phrase has it. Roll on those summer union conferences.

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