When is news not news? Donations to political parties and the cash-for-access scandal

This post originally appeared on Politics in Spires.

Over the weekend the cash-for-access ‘scandal’ over Conservative party donors possibly having dinner with David Cameron in exchange for large donations broke, after a sting by Sunday Times journalists. Predictably the news was followed by ‘outrage’ from the press and the Labour Party over the affront to democracy such donations represented, followed by a statement from David Cameron claiming it had nothing to do with him and that Peter Cruddas was acting independently.

Despite the vast amount of news coverage generated by this latest scandal, almost none of it is actually news. Should we be surprised that Party donors get to have dinner with Party leaders? If we are, it is only because of our own ignorance. It says quite explicitly on the Conservative Party website that different donation amounts will buy you access to different levels of the Conservative leadership. Even if we weren’t in the habit of checking the Conservative Party website, we probably still shouldn’t be surprised by the news given that donors to the Labour Party used to have dinner with Tony Blair.

Nor should we be surprised that the Conservative Party appears willing to fudge the residency requirement to allow donations from a business based in Liechtenstein: one of the largest donors to the Conservative Party, Lord Ashcroft, lives in Belize, at least according to his tax form. Indeed the only news in the entire story is that Peter Cruddas seems to have been trying to fleece ‘prospective donors’ by charging them five times the publically advertised price for dinner with the Prime Minister.

I feel I need to make my position on party funding explicit, as you might be forgiven for thinking that I am defending the practise of buying access to political parties. I am not. I support substantial reforms to party finance such as stringent limits on the amount that can be donated to any party, caps on campaign spending, and state subsidisation of party finances to prevent parties becoming enthralled to the interests of their donors. My point here is simply that there is nothing new in the cash-for-access ‘scandal’.

And he’ll do the washing up for an extra £50 (Flickr)

This latest exercise in muckraking is however emblematic of modern British politics. As the Conservatives propose a seemingly endless string of policies that seem to target the poor and favour the rich, the Labour opposition makes disgruntled noises but fails to offer any principled objections. There is a good reason for this: most of the current Conservative policies have their antecedents in the policies of the last Labour government and the Labour Party is just as tied-up with private interests as are the Conservatives. Predictably Ed Miliband offered a half-hearted condemnation of the latest revelations, describing them as ‘very disturbing’. It would be naïve to expect a stronger statement from Labour condemning the role donations play in British politics; after all, Labour receives almost as much in donations as the Conservatives.

Call me cynical but I also find it unsurprising that this latest scandal was manufactured by a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. The British public, or at least the media that serve them, seem to only have enough attention span for one scandal at a time, and it will do no harm to the Murdoch empire to overshadow the Leveson Inquiry with another scandal. The reporting of the cash-for-access scandal is also typical political reporting from the British press, bouncing from scandal to scandal, and obsessing over trivial detail rather than the bigger picture. We are only a day or so into the scandal and already the press is pressing for the release of who had dinner with David Cameron in his private apartments at 10 Downing street, as if where you have a post-donation off-the-record dinner with the Prime Minister is somehow important.

Some good may yet come from all of this. There is talk of a renewed impetus for negotiations between parties over party funding. These talks have failed to come to any agreement since they began in 2007, but perhaps with party funding so prominently in the news there is reason to hope that this time they will be more successful. I won’t hold my breath though; the main obstacle to the talks comes not from the Conservatives but from Labour, who have previously refused to consider allowing individual union members to opt out of their union’s donations to the Labour Party. While of course I would be pleased if the party talks did manage to achieve something, I can’t help being disheartened that they would be driven by a lot of hot air, rather than simply because it would be the right thing to do for British democracy.

Chris Prosser is a DPhil student in Politics at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. 

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