(Also published on the Huffington Post- come and visit me there!)
Britain’s 90th richest man, and eponymous founder of the ‘Peter Cruddas Foundation,’ dedicated to the “development of …lasting qualities of good citizenship” is now entering his third day of unemployment. Peter ‘Cash for Access’ Cruddas was forced to resign his position as Conservative Party Treasurer on Sunday, after an unfortunate encounter with a recording device made it clear that he had been soliciting vast donations to the Conservative Party from the super-wealthy with the promise of access to the Prime Minister and the chance to influence government policy. “It will be ‘awesome for your business!” he was recorded enthusing. It is still unclear whether he was speaking from personal experience- Cruddas has himself donated over £350,000 to the party- we will probably never know what, if anything, he got in return.
Meanwhile, David Cameron, after several days of foot-dragging over the need for action, has finally taken control of matters by commissioning a rigorous enquiry by a Tory peer to tell him who he ate dinner with last week.
The ensuing moralising from the great and the good has been full of ironies, with perhaps the most choice being Rupert Murdoch’s series of tweets on the matter: “trust must be established! Without trust, democracy and order will go.”
But the most disingenuous attempt to claim the moral high-ground has to be the repeated attempts by the government and its supporters to portray this latest scandal, and the Conservative Party’s more general financial dependence on a small handful of glitteringly wealthy donors as the moral equivalent of Labour’s funding by the Trades Unions.
It started with the barbed official response from Tory HQ to the Cruddas scandal:
“Unlike the Labour Party, where union donations are traded for party policies, donations to the Conservative Party do not buy party or government policy.”
Then Frances Maude picked up the union-bashing ball in his ill- fated Common’s performance yesterday, with a janglingly desperate attempt to characterise Labour’s relationship with the unions as some kind of corrupt Mohammed Al Fayed style “cash for policy” scandal. The meme has been picked up in a series of comment pieces in the press. The right wing amongst them are making the bald-faced argument that union influence over policy making is morally akin to political influence bought by hefty donations from billionaires. The left wing press is more muted on the subject, but even the Guardian lumps the two together in a shrugging “they’re all as bad as each other” editorial.
But of course, the two are not the same at all. The analogy is deeply flawed, and its constant repetition is just further evidence of the Tories increasing detachment from ordinary citizens.
Firstly, there is the question of transparency. The Labour Party was founded by the trades unions explicitly to represent the views of working people and the relationship between the two is not just transparent but fundamental to the constitution of the party. In contrast, the Peter Cruddas affair has shown the many shades of grey that characterise the relationship between government and its major individual donors. The Tories are keen to portray Cruddas as a rogue dealer, and the very idea of ‘cash for access’ as abhorrent, but this point is difficult to argue convincingly when even the Party’s official website is pretty clear about the level of ‘access’ that money can buy you, featuring a detailed menu and price list for varying degrees of exposure to policy makers.
Any influence wielded by highly wealthy individuals over government policy, however indirect, is by definition in the interests of the very, very few. In contrast, union donations are the combined contributions of millions of individual members, acting in their common interest. These donations are entirely voluntary for each member- when an individual joins a union they are offered a choice as to whether a proportion of their individual subscription fee goes to the Labour Party or not. The suggestion that the combined modest donations of over six million ordinary people is equivalent to the vast endowments of a tiny handful of wealthy plutocrats is ludicrous.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly is the issue of democracy. Unions, are among the most democratic, not to mention politically engaged organisations in the country. Union leaders are elected regularly by the grass roots membership and are fully accountable to them in their decision-making. In contrast, individual super-rich political donors are accountable to nobody. Consequently any influence they wield over government is deeply undemocratic. The dangers of this have become evident in the US where a small group of business people wield vast unaccountable influence over legislation.
The process of finding an equitable, democratic solution to the problem of party funding is a complex one, and change is long overdue. But lumping the unions in with the super-rich as moral bedfellows is lazy and disingenuous.