Matthew Oliver is a Conservative activist and former party agent, who now works for Unlock Democracy, the UK's leading campaign organisation for democracy, rights and freedoms, and long-time advocates for party funding reform. He writes in a personal capacity.
Soon we will really see if it is right to accuse the Conservatives of being the "do-nothing party".
The Political Parties and Elections Bill has its Report Stage in the House of Lords today when amendments regarding capping donations to political parties will be debated. Following a number of funding allegations against all parties, there is general consensus that a cap on donations is needed. However, the Liberal Democrats have been the only party to raise the issue of party funding at all during the Bills progress through Parliament.
The Conservatives support a donations cap, having identified a figure of £50,000. Yet the official line on the Bill however is that, “now is not the time” for a cap on donations and that "consensus" is needed on this issue before it can be resolved. This would be fair enough, but the party have actively assisted Labour in its efforts to talk out party funding amendments, in an effort to dodge the debate. At least you could say they are doing something!
David Cameron should change this approach and support the amendments. They would then pass in the Lords, and force Labour MPs to explain to the public why they are against a donations cap (I wonder why that could be?) and vote against it.
If now is not the time for reform, then when will be? Recent scandals have created a unique opportunity for reform which will not exist after the next election. A new Conservative Government (touch wood) would be too concerned about funding the public services and managing the public finances. Capping political donations now would help sell possible future public spending cuts to a sceptical public, as politicians could demonstrate that they too were cutting their cloth accordingly.
Not only would a change of approach make political sense, it would command the support of the public, who are crying out for politicians to tackle the crisis of confidence in our political system. Polls consistently show that the public support limiting the amounts that can be donated to political parties. The last such poll in 2006 for example, found that 64% of the public agreed that donations should be capped to end the perception that politics can be bought. Research also suggests that the public would be more amenable to the arguments for increased state funding once a cap on donations was implemented.
If action is not taken now, the earliest opportunity for reform would be after the 2014/2015 election with any legislation coming some ten years or more after the breakdown of the Hayden Philips talks. When that process broke down in October 2007, Unlock Democracy predicted that without reform there would be another party funding scandal within five years. Even we were shocked that it took less than five weeks. Since then we have had the Deripaska affair, and confirmation that the Electoral Commission is investigating donations made to the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.
According to David Cameron, if returned to office we would be a Government of thrift, would ask public services to do more for less, and would not shirk the tough decisions. When it comes to his own party’s funding however, it is far from clear that he is truly determined to ensure his party practises what it preaches. The opportunity exists for David Cameron to give the lead the public are demanding, put Labour on the back foot, and put his money where his mouth is. Today we will find out of he takes it, or decides to do nothing.