By Paul Goodman
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The Cruddas affair was presented to suggest that the victims of his wiles are the voters. This is the opposite of the truth. The victims are the donors.
Tobin tax tosh
For evidence, I cite a detail buried away amidst the acres of newsprint and videos that accompanied yesterday's Sunday Times report (£):
"[Cruddas] described how he had used a party at Woburn Abbey last year to make sure Cameron knew he opposed the European Union-wide Tobin tax on financial deals. “I knew he was seeing [Angela] Merkel the next day, so when I’m having my photograph done I said, prime minister, for God’s sake, don’t let them bring in the Tobin tax where they tax financial transactions. He said, ‘Don’t even worry about it, don’t even think about it, it ain’t going to happen, not on my watch’. Thank you prime minister … Bosh. Off we go.”
Wow! That word in the ear with the Prime Minister really changed the course of history, didn't it? There was David Cameron set to set off to Brussels, all ready to sign up to the Tobin Tax, with no mind of his own on the matter – and a brief word in his ear from Cruddas saved the City of London! Give the man a peerage! (If one hasn't been promised already.)
Not convinced of my case? Then let me introduce Sarah Southern, the Cameron aide-turned-lobbyist who arranged the journalists-disguised-as-donors' meeting with Cruddas:
"Such was Cameron’s confidence in Southern that he entrusted his pregnant wife to her care on the 2010 election day. They had spent the day shopping, Southern boasted over dinner. She had introduced a client from an American firm to the prime minister at the party conference. The businessman was “especially delighted” because Cameron had “got the message that we wanted him to get”, she said."
Gasp! A man from America paid good money to meet the Prime Minister briefly – we can presume this is the case because were the encounter a long one Southern would scarcely have failed to mention it – and give Cameron the benefit of his views. I'm sure the Prime Minister smiled and nodded most agreeably. And I bet that meeting really shifted policy in its tracks!
Still not sure? Then let's get back to Cruddas:
"Giving an example of the kind of “key bits of information” they could pick up in discussions with politicians, [Cruddas] said he had been told that a tax cut which was good news for high earners was due to be announced in the budget the following week. The following day it emerged that Osborne was planning to scrap the 50p top rate of tax."
Cor! The news which Cruddas was able to share with his guests was so hush-hush that this site may even now be slapped with a D-notice for repeating it. After all, it's not as though any would-be donor willing to spend up to £250,000 for such insights could have found the information on ConservativeHome simply by waiting a day.
Yes, the real suckers are not the voters or even Cruddas – duped, humiliated and dispatched by pretend donors. The real suckers are…the real donors.
Or rather, those real donors who give to the party because they want to grab elbows, bend ears and influence policy to make money.
Donor funding may be bad…
These are a smaller propotion than might be expected, as Tim indicated on Saturday when the Cruddas story broke. Some donors cough up solely out of starry-eyed ideological zeal. Others want to rub shoulders with the famous – that's you, Michael Gove! – and impress their friends with the details afterwards. (Yes, the rich have the same flaws and foibles as the rest of us.) Others want to do both. And some, too, doubtless want to thump the table in front of the Prime Minister and tell him that the workers should all be fired, or that wolves should be introduced to our national parks, or that oil firms should get tax breaks for putting more lead in petrol, or that the Queen should be privatised, or variations on these themes.
Let me tell you what David Cameron's response will be. Actually, I've already told you, but in case you missed it let me repeat the details. He will smile and nod agreeably: I have worked with him – there you go, I sound like a lobbyist already – and I promise you that he's really, really good at smiling and nodding agreeably. Admittedly, he is less good at smiling and nodding agreeably at his own MPs than smiling and nodding at donors, but then again his own MPs are not usually offering the party £250,000 in return for him doing nothing at all. Anyway, come the end of the evening he will say that it's been absolutely splendid, tremendous, marvellous to hear their views – first-rate.
…But state funding is worse…
After which he will forget all about it, and nip up to the Downing Street flat and play Angry Birds, or tuck his children up in bed, or invade Libya, or do whatever it is that he feels like doing. Now I am not, repeat not, arguing that political parties should be able to raise money as they please, or that Cruddas's behaviour was right, or that consequences should not follow from it. For example, that the Conservative Party and the state are separate is a distinction with a difference, and the days are gone when donors to the one should dine with the party leader in the property of the other - Downing Street – just because he also happens to be Prime Minister. Cameron's "internal review" of the Cruddas affair should reach the same conclusion.
Let no-one doubt, though, where such rules and regulations lead – to pressure for more of them: for less political lobbying and more state funding. There is a case for a statutory register of lobbyists. But aren't those on the inside track likely to get on it, and those on the outside one unlikely to do so? After all, those on the inside know how to lobby, and will therefore know how to lobby about lobbying. And who isn't a lobbyist, anyway? Who can truthfully be said to have no interest in how the wheels of government grind? The National Trust? UKUncut? The BBC? You and I, dear reader? Would we all have to register? Come to think of it, MPs are lobbyists for their constituents: to demand politics without lobbying is like demanding politics without voting.
…Because the taxpayer – and voter – always loses out
But politics without voting is where we are heading. I don't mean simply that fewer people are going to the polls than were a quarter-century ago. I mean that the choice between the political parties has narrowed: the policies may be different – indeed, they are often so – but the people don't seem to be. Most have become members of what Peter Oborne has called the political class of which, since it encompasses the whole Westminster village, both he and I are also members. There are many different explanations. Some blame the EU. Others still blame the media. Others yet the judges and the quangocracy. There is some truth in all of these, but I stress another factor: the rise of politics paid for by the taxpayer under compulsion.
It is no coincidence that as taxpayer funding has risen turnout has fallen. As the Cruddas affair shows yet again, the politics of donor interests can be tawdry and sleazy. But at least its victim is often the donors and never the taxpayer. In the politics of state funding, the taxpayer is always the victim. Why should Labour voters have been forced to fund Cameron's office through short money during the last Parliament? Why should Conservative Home readers be compelled to pay for Ed Miliband's secretaries and researchers in this one? Why should any taxpayer have to stump up at all? If politicians depend on the state, they will become the biggest lobbyists of all: lobbyists for yet more taxpayers' money to fund more state dependency – and their own.