The resignation of the Conservative Treasurer has highlighted once again the vexed issue of money and politics. He had to go, as what he said was unacceptable. His departure poses a series of questions for all parties, who need to resume discussions over a reformed regime for party funding.
I would start with a much tighter limit on how much each party can spend on its national General Election campaign. Strict spending control limits on constituency races works well, and means an individual MP in the UK does not have to spend the five years of each Parliament worrying about how to raise the money to fight the next election. In the USA politicians are much more preoccupied with fund raising for themselves. It also means in the UK that it is quite cheap for a serious challenger, allowing good contests. Tougher limits on national expense would cut down the amount a party needs to raise.
A possible deal which the main parties will be relucant to strike would say that shareholders of public companies and Trade Union members should be asked to give any money they wished to give personally. Some think public companies and Trade Unions could both be banned from sending money on behalf of members. Others simply want a limit on the total size of any donation, whether it comes from an individual or from an organisation.
I hope in all this discussion we will not ignore all the other ways people and organisations spend money to gain access . Of course it is wrong for any individual or organisation to think it can send in a party donation and secure a change of policy. A rich individual should no more be able to donate to the Conservatives and get the Prime Minister to change his stance, than should a large Trade Union be able to send in a donation to the Labour party and then dictate policy to the Labour Leader. However, we should also look into the world of cash for access more widely.
Under the last government the public sector increased its lobbying of itself at taxpayers expense. Public sector organisations would invite MPs and Ministers to receptions, lunches, dinners and events to put over their need for more cash, or to explain what they were doing with all the cash they were getting. They sent the bill to the taxpayer. Is this a good way to spend public money?
Trade Associations, Trade Unions, large companies, charities all now have budgets to spend on contacting Ministers and MPs, arranging events to meet these decision takers. They spend on adverts and email, letter, postcard and web based campaigns. Is this cash for access and cash for influence, or just a necessary part of a flourishing democracy? Where does legitimate spending on getting your point of view across end, and undue influence and purchase of advantage begin? People who give money to political parties have always expected to meet the leaders and hear directly from them. They are not the only ones, as there is a whole industry in seeking access through spending. The beauty of the UK system is that you can secure access without spending a penny. Anyone of us has the right to access through our MP. Like the NHS this is a free service at the point of use.