All those Labour MPs who have howled for and insisted on ever more regulators, compliance reports, box ticking and the divulging of information must regret the day they ever made it apply to themselves.
Labour set up the Electoral Commission and required, on penalty of committing a criminal offence, that certain donations should be registered, and the true identities of the donors revealed. As always with Labour, it began as a poltiical response to a problem, and clearly some of them did n ot take it seriously when it came to applying it to themselves,or thought they could be casual about following the rules and get away with it. Some in senior compliance positions claim not to have know the rules, though they were the rules Labour invented.
The rules were very proscriptive, but they were invented for a reason. I presume Labour wanted this amount of transparency, so all could see who had given money, and all could then be sure that those donors had bought no influence and changed no policy with their cash.
What is surpising about the Prime Minister’s handling of this is:
1. He immediately said they had broken the law before undertaking a full enquiry.
2. He told us the General Secretary was the only one who knew the truth about the donations, yet others appear to have known more as well according to some versions of events.
3. He did not go to the support of his Deputy wholeheartedly, leading to a feeling in Labour ranks that each person with issues to explain has to defend themselves as best they can, even if that means dragging others into the enquiry.
4. He has not told us why a donation from Mrs Kidd was unacceptable to his campaign managers but was suggested by them for Miss Harman’s (Mrs Dromey’s)campaign.
There is a Labour spin abroad which says all this is rather technical Westminster Village type chatter. They say there is nothing that is serious here and the PM will clear it all up.That is difficult to accept in Labour’s own terms, as it was Labour who said the correct reporting of donations was so important that they set up a quango to receive the reports, and legislated to require everyone to do it.
I could accept that individual honest mistakes can be made – in the heat of an internal or external election campaign it is possible for a team to forget to register a donation and for the candidate to be unaware or to overlook it or forget it amidst the myriad things they have to do. This is, however, much more than that. In certain important cases the teams did not forget to register – they registered in the wrong name. If it was clear they were all deceived by the donor they might have a defence, but if some in Labour knew the identity of the true donor that defence becomes more difficult to susttain. In the Scottish case it is unfortunate that the politician denied personal knowledge of the donor, only for the donor to reveal a thank you letter that suggests otherwise.
Labour are making all this worse by offering expalnations for events which fall over or are questioned shortly afterwards as more evidence comes to light or more people make statements to justify their own positions. If they want to start to win back public confiddence, the PM or his representative should come to the House of Commons on Monday and make a full statement of what they have found out so far, and what remaining issues they intend to to get to the bottom of in their internal enquiry. The PM told us that Parliament will be given a more central role, and this surely is central to the current state of politics.
The House of Commons would be a better forum than spin through the popular press to test out how serious this all is, allowing Ministers to answer the many obvious questions or to tell us how they are going to be cleared up. To end this crisis the government needs to tell us 1) how many mistakes were made 2) who knew what 3) how press and public can be sure there was no motive for registering these donations in the wrong name other than the stated reason of wishing to preserve the donor’s anonymity 4) why senior Labour officials did not apparently know their own rules or understand them correctly and how that will change. All this now has to be done whilst being careful not to hinder the police enquiry.
For the sake of politics this needs sorting out quickly. It would be a good idea to have a new deal on donations, imposing a ??50,000 limit on gifts from any single source. That is a different matter, as the donations currently causing problems are doing so owing to Labour’s own 2000 legislation, which the government implies it wishes to keep on the Statute book. Labour should not be allowed to divert media attention away from explaining what has happened, and why the PM thinks the law was broken, into a more general discussion about the future of political funding. We need all party talks on that with some give and take by Labour on Union funds, and then a seperate statement to the House when the government has some proposals likely to win general support.
Meanwhile, I hope Labour MPs will use this moment to understand how many people feel about their compliance regime in so many other activiites of life, and will savour for a bit the daily pressure on most people in business to comply with ever more intrusive disclosure rules.