Ed Miliband intends to change the way in which trade union members are affiliated to the Labour Party. One can argue back and forth about whether this is more or less likely to reduce union influence on Labour. (Mark Wallace offered a thorough analysis on this site in the wake of Miliband's original speech.) What is likely, however, is that it will change Labour's calculation about party funding dramatically. To date, the two main parties have had the drop on each other over the issue, like gunslingers in a western: Labour has had no real interest in changing the law to stop the Conservatives gaining big donations, because the move would render its union money vulnerable to a Tory counter-attack. Obviously, the opposite applies. Or it has to date, because – as I say – Miliband's plan has changed all that.
To look at the Cruddas affair in this light is to see more of the full picture. Frankly, voters don't like Labour being in hock to the unions, and like the Conservatives being in hock to large donors, as they see it, even less. (That the claim is bunkum, and that the joke is on the donors, not the voters, doesn't prevent it from being believed.) This is the context in which to see David Cameron's reaction to the false claims made by the Sunday Times about Peter Cruddas, whose triumph in the courts has been chronicled in detail on this site by Lord Ashcroft (see here, here and here.) The whole business of raising money from donors – with its Leader's Group and Treasurer's Group and Renaissance Forum, and the various degrees of access which joining brings – simply looks bad to the man on the omnibus outside the Westminster Village.
I doubt if it will survive Miliband's move. If the way in which Labour raises money changes, the way in which the Tories raise money will change, too. I believe strongly that in a free society political parties ought to be free to raise big sums from big donors if they wish. However, what one is free to do isn't the same as what it's wise to do. The Party would do well to slap a limit on donations before Labour does it anyway. Miliband's gambit also have big implications for the membership of the two main parties: as I've written before on this site, it will probably gain Labour members, and the continuing loss of Conservative ones will cast a searching light on the Party's future. CCHQ's policy of not declaring membership figures – we ask today for the sixth day running how many members the Party has – will thus become even more unsustainable.
And that raising money from big donors looks bad explains, though it doesn't excuse, why Cameron leaped before he looked over the Cruddas allegations – just as public-school educated Cabinet members reportedly calling police officers "plebs" also looks bad, which explains why the Prime Minister also leaped over the Andrew Mitchell allegations (into which Downing Street didn't look thoroughly). Cruddas is thus causing the Prime Minister an additional headache. Mitchell is innocent of the charge against him. So he deserves restoration to the Cabinet. Cruddas is likewise innocent, as the courts have found. So he, too, deserves restoration to CCHQ at a very high level. He is the Mitchell of the voluntary party.
This is the human drama of the situation, with all its injustices, heartache, media exposure and family grief. But behind it is a backcloth on which is scrawled a message, like the writing on the wall at Belshazzar's Feast. It warns that the present system of donating to the Conservative Party is unsustainable.