Price of democracy is party funding

STATE funding of political parties could be in place for the next General Election if radical changes proposed yesterday are adopted by the Government.

By Graham Dines

STATE funding of political parties could be in place for the next General Election if radical changes proposed yesterday are adopted by the Government.

The Phillips Report on how the political elite raise cash recommends a cap on donations, a reduction in spending on general election campaigns and the introduction of taxpayer subsidies.

It would end the bankrolling of Labour by the trade unions, stop underhand loans, and prevent big business and wealthy individuals from giving obscene amount of cash to their favourite parties.


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Asking the taxpayers to cough up cash may not go down well, but for political parties have to survive if we are to have a properly functioning democracy.

The report - commissioned by Tony Blair in the wake of the cash-for-honours allegations - recommends state funding of about £20-£25 million a year for the parties in return for reform of their fundraising activities.

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Sir Hayden Phillips calls on the Government to bring together the three major parties to try to resolve remaining areas of dispute and find a consensus for a way forward.

In a statement, the Prime Minister welcomed Sir Hayden's report and said it “shows very clearly that there is now the basis for a new agreement on the funding and expenditure of political parties.”

Mr Blair said hopes consensus can be reached in talks between Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to take place before Parliament breaks for the summer, which he has asked former Whitehall mandarin Sir Hayden to chair.

The talks are intended to pave the way for legislation in the next parliamentary session, said the Prime Minister, adding: “The time has come for us to find a new settlement on party funding and expenditure.”

Labour will be hit by the ending of mega bucks donations by the trade unions but the report hints that it may be possible to treat union donations as being made up of many individual gifts from members.

But Sir Hayden stresses that this would be acceptable only if a transparent way was agreed of linking each gift to an individual donor. This could involve union members being asked to sign forms confirming that they want their contribution to the union's political fund to support a particular party.

The Conservatives will suffer if Sir Hayden's recommendation that there should be no further large donations to individual constituencies is approved. The party has exploited in the past the shuffling of cash to marginal seats - in recent years, Tory financier Lord Ashcroft has poured money into constituencies which the Conservatives have to win to form a Government.

Nevertheless, Tory Party chairman Francis Maude immediately welcomed the report. “We accept its main recommendations. We want cleaner and cheaper politics. And we believe that all political parties should work together to achieve this. The ball is now firmly in Labour's court to reform and clarify its relationship with the trade unions.

“Sir Hayden Phillips has looked carefully at the issues. He is right: to restore public trust our democracy now needs an across-the-board cap on large donations from the unions, big business and wealthy individuals. We support this recommendation.

“In the interests of achieving agreement among the parties, we also accept Sir Hayden's call for caps on party spending. If there were to be local caps, those caps must not be set at a level which gives an unfair advantage to sitting MPs, who now have tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money in Parliamentary allowances to spend in their constituencies.”]

For the Liberal Democrats, David Heath said: “The review quite properly identifies the substantial and growing unease at the state of party funding. There are serious concerns about the influence of big donors, whether individual, corporate or trade union, and a need to reverse the inexorable rise in campaign expenditure at both national and local level.

“The key objective must be to restore public confidence in the political system, especially following the cash-for-honours affair.

“There are undoubtedly difficult areas for all of us to consider. We have always advocated the proposed cap on individual donations but for this to be adopted will now take fresh thinking by the Labour Party.

“The patent abuse of spending limits in individual constituencies by the use of central expenditure will require a change in behaviour by the Conservatives. Serious issues about bureaucracy and definition of party membership will be raised if it is linked in any way to funding.”

`I'M NO FAGGOTT, I'M A WUSS'

WHEN is it acceptable to call a political candidate a “faggot?” In the United States, the remarks of right wing columnist Ann Coulter about Democrat hopeful John Edwards have not exactly gone a down a treat.

Coulter, passing judgement on all the aspiring US presidential prospects, told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “I was going to have a few comments about the other Democratic nominee John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word `faggot.'”

The former North Carolina senator and his party's vice presidential candidate in the 2004 contest which resulted in George W. Bush winning re-election, Edwards found thousands of dollars flooding into his campaign coffers after Coulter's jibe.

But Coulter hit back, digging herself deeper into the mire. “Faggot isn't offensive to gays,” she insisted. “It has nothing to do with gays. It's a schoolyard taunt meaning `wuss' and unless you're telling me that John Edwards is gay, it was not applied to a gay person.”

Fearing a gay backlash, three Republican candidates seeking their party's nomination for an election which will not take place until November next year - Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Arizona senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani - publicly denounced the remarks.

Which caused Coulter to taunt: “Apparently our top three Republican nominees aren't that smart. If they're going to start apologising for everything I say, they better keep that statement handy because there's going to be a lot more in the next year.”

Meanwhile, America's top military officer General Peter Pace - chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - has expressed regret but refused to apologise for likening homosexual acts to adultery. Nevertheless, he does support the “don't ask, don't tell” doctrine introduced by President Clinton in 1994 which allows gays and lesbians to serve if they keep their sexual orientation private and don't engage in homosexual acts.

Perhaps Anne Coulter and General Pace should take a trip to London's theatreland to watch the revival of Tennessee Williams' And Tell Sad Stories of The Death of Queen - and while they're about it, take the Archbishop of Nigeria with them.

ESSEX TORY MPs OPPOSE CONSTITUTION REVIVAL

AS Liberal Democrat Euro MP for the East of England Andrew Duff bangs the drum for a revival of the European constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters, a group of Tory MPs at Westminster has signed an early day motion repudiating any such move.

Essex North's Bernard Jenkin is one of the principal sponsors of Early Day Motion 787 which calls on the House of Commons to have no truck with plans by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and current holder of the EU rotating presidency, to promote negotiations for a new European Treaty based on the original document and “repudiates the principle and content” of it.

The motion expresses opposition to the UK enacting the constitution and “insists that, before ratification, any new European Treaty and the interconnected existing European Treaties shall be put to a referendum . . . of the electorate of the UK.”

Other signatories of the motion include MPs Douglas Carswell (Harwich), Brooks Newmark (Braintree), and John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East).

GOVERNMENT IN DANGER ON POST OFFCIES

THE Post Office card account, which the Government seems hell-bent on scrapping, has been particularly popular in the Harwich constituency, where there is one of the highest numbers of pensioners in the UK.

Figures published for each parliamentary constituency have revealed the number of state pensions paid into such an account on January 20 this year. For the Harwich constituency, it was 5,360.

As the Government presses ahead with the closure of 2,500 post offices nationwide, forcing pensioners and others on benefits to have their monthly cash paid into a bank account, the statistics should flag a warning to ministers on just how unpopular the new policy could be.

Regional constituency figures are as follows, made up of total benefits paid into the Post Office with pensions in brackets:

Braintree 4,780 (2,380); Bury St Edmunds 5,660 (3,180), Suffolk Central & Ipswich North 6,990 (3,950), Colchester 5,470 (2,270), Harwich 10,470 (5,360), Ipswich 7,300 (2,950), Maldon & Chelmsford East 4,370 (2,220), Essex North 4,910 (2,870), Rayleigh 3,830 (2,280), Saffron Walden

3,920 (2,140), Suffolk South 4,930 (3,010), Suffolk Coastal 5,850 (3,270), Waveney 8,050 (3,760), Chelmsford West 4,120 (2,030), Suffolk West 5,000 (2,620).

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