Tuesday, 27 March 2012
Big Money Politics
Here's an article I wrote ten years ago - on the need to get big money out of party politics in the UK.
At the time the Labour party ruled the roost in Scotland - with the help of the big public sector trade unions - GMB, Unison and Unite.
Now the unions claim to be 'independent' - but as everyone knows they are working hand in glove with the Labour leadership - most of the time.
Which is not good for ordinary trade union members - because they don't support the Labour party in the same slavish way as trade unions leaders.
The political views of ordinary union members is very diverse - they support all kinds of poltiical parties including the SNP, Lib Dems, Conservatives and Greens.
Only a minority of union members in Scotland support Labour these days - and lots of them don't support any political party at all.
Yet the big public sector trade unions only affiliate to the Labour party - which means they are not reflecting the views of their members - and behaving badly, undemocratically into the bargain.
So getting big money out of the Labour party and the Tory party would be a very good thing for democracy in my view - which is why I wrote this article back in 2002.
Since then Amicus and TGWU have merged to become Unite - one of the trade unions responsible for installing Ed Miliband as Labour leader of course.
Because as everyone knows the majority of Labour party members voted for Ed's older brother, David.
Big Money Politics
In the good old bad old days, Labour fund raising was all about raffles, tombolas and race nights - innocent gatherings of friends, supporters and fellow travellers whose many hands made the wheels of local democracy go round.
As the dust begins to settles from Labour’s latest, self-inflicted ‘Wishawgate’ scandal, public attention should focus on the real issues: how is such money raised, what is it used for and does it distort the democratic process? Blaming a few old buffers for being careless with the biscuit tin is a smokescreen, and an insult to the professionalism of many voluntary sector groups, small and large.
Some pretend that New Labour marked the break with the salad days of the past, as a new generation of snake oil salesmen in sharp suits cosied up to tobacco kings and porn peddlers, as potential sugar daddies. And this handy caricature is true up to a point, but conceals a wider truth about the murky nature of raising money in old Labour stomping grounds.
In Lanarkshire, Labour’s heart of darkness, known criminals and drug dealers are pivotal figures in ‘Wishawgate’. One was murdered soon after helping to boost the takings of a Red Rose dinner to an impressive £25,000 - though no one can explain the purpose behind raising such large sums, or no one is prepared to say.
Underpinning various dollops of cash sloshing about Motherwell and Wishaw, are regular donations from the ISTC trade union, with less than 50,000 members across the UK, and penny numbers in the local area, especially after the closure of Ravenscraig. Yet, this tiny union becomes a power broker by donating £5,000 to local party funds in 1999 followed by £1,500 a year, paid in handy quarterly instalments.
In total, £10,000 of union members’ money has been ploughed into Motherwell and Wishaw with ordinary ISTC members having no idea about what’s going on. But this is deliberate - trade unions carve up constituencies across Scotland, which become ISTC or other strongholds, concentrating power in the hands of the few (not the many) who are completely unaccountable to members.
The system works by adopting and sponsoring MSP’s and MP’s, often without rhyme or reason, which explains the odd couple relationship between someone like Wendy Alexander (ex high-flying management consultant) and the plodding transport workers union, TGWU. Other politicians have equally inexplicable affiliations with unions to which they never belonged as members (Donald Dewar and the railway workers union, RMT) because the link is about horse-trading and power.
For evidence, look no further than Jack McConnell’s knife-edge contest to win the Motherwell and Wishaw selection contest for Holyrood, where the ex-general secretary of Scottish Labour, arguably a figure of some standing, was run to within one vote by Bill Tynan, a bog standard official of the engineering union.
Trade unions put their money and influence behind union candidates, in behind the scenes deals; the end result is people with small minds and big prejudices emerging as key players, especially in areas like Lanarkshire where talent and ability become secondary to union support. The system creates a series of pacts turning many constituencies into local fiefdoms: union muscle and money levers in favoured candidates from GMB, TGWU, Amicus, Unison, RMT and so on.
Sponsored democracy is the name of the game, and the only crime is getting caught. How crazy is a situation where 99% of GMB members pay the trade union levy to the Labour party, when less than 1% are party members? GMB members in Scotland vote the same way as the rest of the population – they are as anyone else likely to vote for the SNP, Lib Dems, Scottish Socialists, Greens and Tories.
Earlier this year, the RMT turned its army of 56,000 Labour party levy payers into a rump of 10,000 souls. One minute 97% of RMT members (57,869 says the TUC) were paying part of their union dues to Labour, the next it was cut to a mere 17%. Why decide overnight to affiliate 10,000 RMT members instead of 56,000? No one knows, or no one will say.
But the crucial point is that not one of the 46,000 ‘disappeared’ was asked before union bosses used their financial muscle to influence the democratic process. The RMT leadership went on to divert the members’ money to friendlier ‘left wing’ MP’s abandoning support for the likes of Robin Cook and John Prescott, who resigned his 47-year RMT membership in protest.
State funding of parties would bring about cultural shift, not by throwing money at politicians, but by investing wisely in a new system built on sound principles: transparency, integrity and a model of internal democracy based on one member one vote. The state already spends huge sums on political parties, through MSP and MP salaries and expenses. Whether the public is getting value for money is a moot point.
Politics and party connections also distort the use of public money in the ‘not for profit’ or voluntary sector, as Fife council uncovered in its investigations into the Third Age charity, the last of the skeletons to fall out of Henry McLeish’s closet in the Officegate affair. Fife council uncovered a disturbing degree of what it called ‘crossover’ – a wonderfully understated term used to describe the practice of Labour supporters appearing in strange places in impossibly high numbers, wearing two or more hats.
Labour’s UK think tank, IPPR (Institute of Public Policy Research), has proposed an interesting scheme that would restrict party fundraising to voluntary donations, topped up by state funds on a pound for pound basis. All monies raised would be open to public inspection and the key role would fall to ordinary members and supporters – using other people’s money for political aims would be outlawed.
A debate over state funding will produce some decidedly strange bedfellows. So far, only two groups have declared ‘over my dead body’ opposition. The Tories, who talk about reconnecting with voters while encouraging big business to finance the party from corporate profits. And union bosses, who know their conscript armies of levy payers’ do not reflect the political views of ordinary union members. In their separate ways, both are equally dishonest and undemocratic.
State funding would be good for democracy because it would make politicians clean up their act. A modest sum would be an investment in the long-term and a transparent approach would gradually drive out hidden networks and cosy deals. Put simply, modern state funding, effective regulation and a cap on party spending has the potential to drive a stake through the heart of Tammany Hall politics, for once and all.
Mark A. Irvine