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Tuesday 9 July 2013

Is there any principle in these things?

POLITICS has always been a dirty game, often won by those with the most to spend.

The knights who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta managed it because he needed their money. Commoners were elected to the Model Parliament in 1295 only because Edward III needed them to raise taxes. The English revolution died on its arse when it racked up debts of £2million and the army revolted against an inept leader.

And it didn't stay in the dark ages - the last two British general elections were won by the party which spent the most.

Today the Labour leader's going to make a speech about stopping automatic donations from trade union members, following a scandal about who's been picking candidates for by-elections.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that making a speech changes naff all, it's dim to crack down on £3-a-head donations from traditional supporters who deserve a voice when the problem seems to lie with union barons paid up to £140,000-a-year and who are stuck in 1975.

Trade unions are an amazing thing - a group of people speaking as one, and through force of numbers winning every worker in this country paid holiday, maternity leave, weekends, the right not to be sacked if you get married or fall pregnant or become ill, pensions and safety at work.

There are 7million people in Britain who are members of trade unions, and historically they have formed the backbone of the Labour Party and there's nothing wrong with that, any more than it is wrong for the businessmen of the Conservative Party or the dippy undecideds in the Liberals to have their say as well.

What is wrong is where the money seeps in and the principles leak out. A union boss on six figures is no longer representative of their members simply because on that money, they're a boss. They're don't get sacked like the rest of us.

When a union baron casts block votes for the election of a Labour leader, or to pass a resolution at party conference, it's not because their millions of members have been won over by the argument. It's because one person was persuaded by one other, and maybe that's politics but it certainly ain't right.

And when that one person is controlling millions of pounds and it's money which gets you elected, of course the politicians will butter them up. David Cameron butters up his donors just the same.

At least we know who the unions are and how much they spend, and when it looks like they've influenced a by-election we hear about it. Big donations to other parties have to be registered but it's easy to blur the tracks when the donors aren't public bodies.

Some are personal and others corporate; some are legacies given to avoid inheritance tax and some are benefits-in-kind involving secondments, favours, gifts and fundraising auctions. To link it all together you have to trawl the donation registers, pull company accounts, check marriage registers and have a year or two spare to do it in.

There's more than one billionaire arms dealer or millionaire private health boss whose wife has made donations on his behalf, and unless you spend days tracing the source you'd never know whether it was a scandal.

It took a newspaper sting and a series of panicked denials before the Prime Minister admitted to a string of dinners with 15 big-money donors who'd given a total of £25million. He can eat with whomever he chooses, of course, but it's different to Labour's deal with the unions only in that he didn't complain about it.

They say that where there's muck, there's brass; but in politics it's more the case that where there's money there's the whiff of corruption. Westminster is awash in it - those with the cash buy lobbyists, access, candidates, all-party parliamentary groups and anything else they can get their grubby mitts on. It might be great for them, but it sucks for the other 62million of us.

And the more that money talks, the more the voters walk. We cannot hope to match the influence of a chequebook and so we turn away from even trying to be heard, turnout drops almost every election and party membership in the past 50 years has dropped off a cliff.

It used to be that 5 in every 100 people paid their party subs - now it's less than 1 in 100. Desperate politicians who do so well at telling others to tighten their belts are running around with their trousers around their ankles looking for customers.

The trouble with this system is the same as it is with any other public servant: If they can be bought, they're of no use. If a copper sells info to a journalist his info can't be trusted and he's not going to stand up in court and back the journo when they need them to. If a politician will sell you his soul, he'll argue for you only as long as it pays and there will come a point you've coughed up ten times what his soul was worth.

Nowhere in the definition of politics or laws of our unwritten constitution does it say that money has to be involved. It's just stuck on the side, like a goitre.

Ending automatic subs from union members won't force union bosses to cut their own pay or be more representative of their members. Paying MPs more won't make them more noble, and the existing process of local parties picking election candidates is as open to corruption and vested interest as the rotten and pocket boroughs of the 18th century.

Then activists and revolutionaries campaigned for reform and in 1791 Tom Paine thundered: "Is there any principle in these things?" It's been 222 years, but little has changed except to make the whole nasty business more opaque.

We all get a vote, but few bother to exercise it. Those with money to burn win the ear of the venal leaders who depend upon them, and so the wheel turns.

The solution is simple - cut out the cash. No more donations over, say, £10,000, and no more big-money election campaigns paying for battle buses, spin and airbrushed posters. Let every local candidate have a free broadcast on the local TV and radio stations, and limit spending to the cost of a couple of mailshots.

Websites are cheap. Public meetings are free. Picking candidates through a system of primaries could be funded by tax and reignite mass involvement in the political process. Pay politicians the national average and let them stay in a dormitory when they're needed to stay in town.

What worker gets better perks than that? What servants are looked after so well by their masters? Only those with a good union, I think.

Any donation is bribery, at its heart, and we arrest people for that these days. It's time politics was subject to the same rules as the rest of us.

Because money never cleaned a damned thing.

You need to clean the money.