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Maintaining fiction is no substitute for proper reform

James Graham
17 June 2008

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!): Has David Hencke, Slayer of Tory Dragons, Sleazesmeller Persuviant Extraordinaire, gone soft? I ask this because his coverage in today's Guardian of Jack Straw's proposed party funding reforms can only be described as naïve.

 

Hencke asserts that "The Conservatives have been blocked from targeting Labour marginals with spending that can run to tens of thousands of pounds a year by legislation which will limit all parties' candidates to spending a maximum of £12,000 from October until the general election." Straw's proposals do nothing of the sort. What they do is return us to the pre-2000 situation whereby party spending limits are only "triggered" when a candidate is formally adopted by their party or declares themselves (inadvertently or otherwise).

 

The reason this law was scrapped will be familiar to anyone who was actively involved in party campaigning during the last century and indeed anyone else who thinks about it. To get around that rule, all a candidate need do is, well, not call themselves a candidate. As a hangover of those days, people from across the political spectrum still call selected candidates "prospective parliamentary candidates," or "PPCs." According to party constitutions, candidates would have to be formally adopted a month before the election itself, hence the formal adoption meeting (a tradition that has continued as it is a useful opportunity to squeeze more money out of members). Candidates would always be referred to as "local campaigners", "local champions", "Parliamentary spokespeople" - once again this tradition has often continued on the quite reasonable basis that the public can be quite cynical about political campaigning yet value candidates who "work all year round, not just at election time."

 

What I'm getting at here is that going back to this antiquated law will, apart from catching the odd foolish individual out, change absolutely nothing. Just as MPs will campaign throughout their term of office behind the figleaf of being an elected official communicating with their constituents (ably assisted by the newly created £10,000 annual communications allowance, also introduced by Straw back when he was Leader of the House), their rivals will continue to campaign behind the figleaf of being ordinary individuals who have been stirred into action out of a sense of community spirit. Jack Straw's great legacy has been to fictionalise political campaigning.

It is deeply ironic that Straw made this announcement a day before David Davis resigned as an MP. Of course, legally speaking, MPs can't resign, but it doesn't seem to stop them. Our political system is riddled with such parlour games. They all make for jolly anecdotes to amuse foreigners with but they hardly amount to a system that can be said to be transparent and open.

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