John Redwood’s contributions to the Political Parties and Elections Bill

Mr. Redwood: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was keen to disagree—I am delighted that I have the agreement of the Labour Back Benchers. They do not wish to intervene and tell me that I am wrong to want more time to discuss these matters. Please will the Minister reconsider, will he see that this has broken any chance of consensus and will he grant us more time? There is plenty of time this week or next week.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient time to discuss the important issue of politically motivated leaders of local authorities who deliberately try to keep registration at a low level? The Minister will recall that I have given the example in previous debates of the Liberal leader of Islington local authority, who, when approached by the Labour group to have a registration drive before an election, was adamantly opposed to that idea because that was how Liberals won elections. Will there be sufficient time to discuss these important issues?

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): It is a pity that the Government wish to rush through what could turn out to be a bungled and unsatisfactory piece of legislation. Given the problems that candidates for the deputy leadership of the Labour party got into under the law that the Government introduced before, one would have thought that the Government would have seen the need for simpler and clearer legislation and for more time to prepare it so that everyone could buy into it, understand it and comply with it. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members wished to comply with the earlier legislation, but they got into difficulties because it was complicated and not fully understood. That legislation had not been thought through or debated sufficiently so that all could grapple with its complexities.

I have the same worry, only more so, about this Bill, because it has a troubled history. We now learn that consensus has broken down between the main parties on this issue, but the Bill requires consensus and agreement because it relates to the methods of election of people of all parties and none to this House. Surely it requires as much time as Parliament thinks it needs or deserves to try to reach sensible agreement. It is not satisfactory to have a whole set of new proposals put before the House at the last minute.

I cannot understand why we need 80 days off this summer, but that is the Government’s wish. If they are sticking with their 80 days off, there clearly is not time to do this Bill properly. They have an easy answer—they could put on another couple of days next week and get this thing done properly. I do not see the Minister rising to offer to do that. I find it very difficult to explain to constituents why there is not enough time to make our case or to do our job when we are then forced to take an 80-day break when some of us would be happy to work longer to see things through properly.

If we must have this kind of legislation, the Government should let us have the time to debate it. Indeed, why cannot we go longer this week if colleagues already have holidays planned for next week? We could meet later on Wednesday or Thursday to accommodate the need to consider these measures carefully. I think that it is a great tragedy that the Minister will not rise from his seat and offer us that— [ Interruption. ] Does the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) want to intervene?

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): No, sorry. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to finish.

Mr. Redwood: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was keen to disagree—I am delighted that I have the agreement of the Labour Back Benchers. They do not wish to intervene and tell me that I am wrong to want more time to discuss these matters. Please will the Minister reconsider, will he see that this has broken any chance of consensus and will he grant us more time? There is plenty of time this week or next week.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient time to discuss the important issue of politically motivated leaders of local authorities who deliberately try to keep registration at a low level? The Minister will recall that I have given the example in previous debates of the Liberal leader of Islington local authority, who, when approached by the Labour group to have a registration drive before an election, was adamantly opposed to that idea because that was how Liberals won elections. Will there be sufficient time to discuss these important issues?

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: Of course—not least so that I can have a cough.

Mr. Redwood: I am pleased to give the Secretary of State an opportunity to sort out his cough; I hope that he will soon feel better. Will he tell the House the position in European law? Presumably, the Bill means that in European elections—and a European referendum, if we held one—no one could intervene to fund the campaigns from the continent, for example. That does not cause me any trouble, but I wonder how it squares with European law.

Mr. Straw: I shall have to come back to the right hon. Gentleman on the question of European law, and I will do so. My recollection is that the same rules on donations apply to elections for the European Parliament as to any other elections, notwithstanding the fact that there is some difference in the franchise, as he will be well aware.
Mr. Redwood: As we have been reminded by the Secretary of State, the voluntary tradition in all British parties is an important part of what we do and, in that sense, it makes our democracy special. What my hon. Friend is saying, however, is that all this is complicated and difficult and that no one who is sensible would want to be a voluntary treasurer and have to sign off on this kind of thing. That would apply to Labour and the Liberal Democrats as well as to Conservatives.

Mr. Djanogly: My right hon. Friend makes a very basic, and yet very effective, point that will be reality.

Mr. Redwood: How does somebody buy an election? Did Labour buy its victories in the last few elections?

Mr. Prentice: I am going to come to that point.

Mr. Redwood: If the Government are worried about the issue, should they not say that nobody who wishes to be a Labour peer should give the Labour party any money? On the Government’s theory, it would be wrong to give a peerage to anybody who had given money, would it not?

Mr. Cox: My right hon. Friend may well be right.

Mr. Redwood: We heard the authentic voice of Labour in that speech from the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who has insulted the British electorate in a big way. I do not believe that it is possible to buy an election in the way that he suggests. No matter how many millions the Conservative party might have spent in 1997 if the rules had been different, we would have lost. No matter how much money Labour spent in the European elections this year, they would have lost. The British public are quite able to discern what they want and who they want, and they are not driven by the biggest-spending party on any given occasion.

The hurried and perhaps botched amendments that we are considering worry me for both general and specific reasons. I think that they are botched because, as the Justice Secretary kindly admitted, he will have to return to them in the other place, as he knows that they do not deal with all the matters that are coming out in this rather short debate, and that will come out as further consideration is given to the Bill. That shows the danger of legislating in such haste, after quite a long period in which proper consideration could have been given, both in the Chamber and in more general consultation.

My general concern about the new proposals is that they are part of a drift to ensnare our politics in so much legalese and complexity that it puts off many amateurs who would otherwise be involved and be able to participate. I referred in an intervention to the plight of a party treasurer of whatever party. It is difficult enough to conform with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. We have seen all parties get into difficulties—inadvertently, I am sure. I am sure that they are trying to comply. Even that legislation has proved quite demanding and quite complicated, but as we have heard from Front Benchers of both main parties, it has the merit that all that the treasurer or other responsible official has to do is prove that the individual is registered to vote in this country and is on the electoral roll. There is a roll to which they can refer, and which is reasonably accessible, to establish that they have had due diligence.

The proposals before us involve considerably more complication, in that three separate tests would be applied, and then a person would have to try to ascertain whether all the forms had been accurately filled in. I understand that there is to be self-certification by the individual seeking to make the donation, and that is where the burden will lie. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) explained, that individual could genuinely be unsure, or they might make a perfectly accurate declaration, but the facts and circumstances might change subsequently. Given the speed with which events can occur during an election campaign, it would be quite possible to imagine members of different parties making mistakes. There would be a long legal process afterwards to try to sort it all out.
In a fast-moving democracy that relies on volunteers and voluntary donations, it would seem to be bad law to make things that complicated. The danger is twofold.

First, it means that politics becomes about the process of politics, and it means that individuals and parties hurl allegations at each other in a way that can only damage the general reputation of politics and drag all parties further downwards. If, under clause 8, one party finds something wrong with somebody’s declaration, the natural reaction of the other parties will be to find things wrong with the alternative party or parties, through the declarations. They would then throw allegations—perhaps fair, perhaps unfair. That will become part of a process of making politics about whether parties stick to the box-ticking letter of the law, rather than about the big issues that concern constituents and enliven political debate and general elections.

When we get into that kind of snare or trap, we will find that all parties will want to go for more state funding instead. As the Justice Secretary has rightly said, that would be exceedingly unpopular with voters of all dispositions at the moment. However, the more it is made difficult for individuals, companies and trade unions to put their money into political parties on a voluntary basis, the more the political parties will seek other ways of finding state funding—and at a time when the state does not have any money and is having to borrow it all. The public would think that that was extremely unreasonable.

Kelvin Hopkins: The simple answer to all that is to have a savage cut in permissible spending on elections.

Mr. Redwood: I have rather more sympathy for that view. I have said that I favour a tighter cap on election spending, affecting all the major parties. It would be much easier to control any problems that parties may see in the current system through spending controls, rather than through donation controls. That would be easier to police. We know that it is quite possible to police a spending control because there is one in place at the moment; such a control applies to each one of us when we seek re-election, and applies at the national level to each major party. There have not been too many problems with those spending caps. That is a productive and sensible suggestion. I cannot see why we need also look at limiting categories of people who are allowed to donate.

As hon. Friends have said, if someone is entitled to vote in an election, surely they should be entitled to back their vote with a donation. If someone is allowed to run for office in an election to gain even more influence, what is to stop them making a donation to support their or someone else’s campaign? The whole thing is quite absurd if looked at from the outside. It makes sense only if one goes down the route taken by the hon. Member for Pendle and reveals the raw politics behind the rather elegant legal debate that we have had, for most of the time, this afternoon.

I urge the Government to think again. Such changes cannot be made without consensus. They relate to the system of election for all parties, and they need to be seen to be fair by all parties involved, but that clearly is not so with this Bill. Such changes cannot be made in haste, and the latest, very chunky, amendments that we are considering have been drafted very quickly, in a way that not even the Government think is reasonable.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): As always, my right hon. Friend makes a cogent and logical case. Does he not agree that the logic of his case extends to those people, whom all political parties have recognised, who live abroad and have resided in this country within the past 10 years—the period has been varied, but it is currently 10 years—and who are entitled to vote? They ought also to be entitled to give a political donation, if they wish.

Mr. Redwood: That is exactly my view, and the view shared, I think, by most Conservative Members. I recommend it to the Government, because they will have supporters in a similar position—supporters who will feel cut out by the unwillingness of the legislation to allow them to participate fully in the way that other legally registered British voters can by virtue of residence.

It is a dangerous principle to say that someone has to pay tax in a country to participate in its politics. There are all sorts of people in our country who, for good reasons, do not pay tax. Full participation cannot be linked to taxpaying. It is rather divisive to say otherwise, and I find it surprising that that view is taken by the Labour party, which normally stands up for people without much money who do not pay tax for that reason. It is strange to apply the argument in one direction but not in the other, when it comes to the issue of taxation. The American democracy may well have been based originally on the principle of no taxation without representation, but we do not want the principle that there can be full participation only with taxation. That would be a very odd principle indeed in a society where some people do not pay tax for good reasons.

I hope that the Government will take the proposals away and think again. We know that they will think again, because their Front Benchers have promised that other amendments will be necessary to try to make sense of the inadequate amendments before us. I repeat what was said in an earlier exchange: it is quite wrong that something so important and fundamental to our democracy—issues relating to the participation rights of a wide range of British people—should be handled in such a way, at the last minute, without proper time for consideration of the amendments, without a further attempt to create consensus across the Chamber, and without proper discussion of the final amendments, which needs to take place.

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5 Comments

  1. Neil Craig
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Purely theoretical & off the main point but I think there is a fair case for people who don’t pay taxes, or are in receipt of more money from the state than they pay not voting (some of whom like windfarm owners, quangoists & farmers are well off). As Mencken said when the government robs Peter to pay Paul they are assured Paul’s vote – if he has one.

    I grant there is no real chance of that happening in the foreseable future.

    • Denis Cooper
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      The practice of giving every adult citizen an equal vote certainly has its disadvantages, but it has the overwhelming advantage that it reduces the need for periodic violent revolutions – which was in fact one of the main reasons why the franchise was gradually extended. However the ruling class has found ways to neutralise the unwelcome effects of universal suffrage, of which the most notable is to persuade Parliament to delegate more and more of its law-making powers to external bodies which are less answerable to the voters. Mainly the EU, of course, but also the UN. Hence parliamentary democracy has now been largely supplanted by a new system of government, “internal government by international treaty”, which I guess could eventually end in the violent revolution we previously avoided.

      • Neil Craig
        Posted July 14, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        A beautifully cynical & lergely true answer Denis. Where, apart from having a revolution, my proposal scores is that governmental structure tends to incentivise competent government (I will put it no stronger than that & indeed perfection in human affairs not being available that is probably the best we can do). The EU on the other hand, irrespective of merits of individuals, incentivises bureaucracy, indecision & parasitic government.

        A thought I have had is that we should let people sell their votes. Not the single votes but the right to vote in the seller’s name for a specific period or even for life. It would be much cheaper than buying votes by locating projects in marginal constituencies, would keep the sellers happy & I have no problem with somebody so lacking in social responsibility not having a say in government. It would even improve turnout since nobody who had either spent money on a vote or deliberately foregone a several hundred pound bribe wouldn’t vote.

        • Denis Cooper
          Posted July 15, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          That’s one reason for the secret ballot – so that anybody who paid an elector to vote for a certain candidate would have no way of checking whether they’d actually done so. But what you’re suggesting would be more like plutocracy than democracy.

  2. Arden Forester
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    “It is a pity that the Government wish to rush through what could turn out to be a bungled and unsatisfactory piece of legislation.”

    Well said. This, however, is not the first. The history of New Labour appears to be a subject in its own right. One of bungling, rushing to judgement, pontification, dissembling, mockery, anti-English gerrymandering, malfeasance, corruption, coercion, vulgarity, incompetence, control freakery, meddling, and just downright awfulness.

    Thomas Beckett was described as a turbulent priest. This lot is one turbo-charged turbulent government!

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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