Tony Blair at Question Time on Wednesday was easily able to deflect attacks on the “loans for Lordships” front. His counter-attack focused on two points:
(i) It was New Labour who enacted the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act (2000), which created the Electoral Commission and required donations of over £5,000 to be declared. For the regulations go to this web-site: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/regulatory-issues/legdonpoliticalparty.cfm
(ii) The Labour Party has now disclosed where its loans came from, but the Conservative Party has so far not done likewise. The suspicion is that the Conservatives wish to conceal that that they have been receiving money from foreign donors (sorry, lenders). Donations from foeign sources are illegal, but loans are, so far as I can make out, within the law (just).
A third argument, which Blair did not make, is that “everyone does it”. As Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times (25/3/06) puts it Blair is “hardly the first party leader suspected to have bartered baubles for booty”. Max Hastings suggests that, at least in private, this more phlegmatic view is widespread among “professional politicians” (Guardian 23/3/06). By way of a response to these 3 arguments one could say:
(i) What Blair has done is certainly contrary to the spirit if not the letter of the 2000 Act. It is utterly disingenuous to introduce an Act, and then devise ways in which it can be circumvented. It is almost as if the Act was a very Blairite PR exercise: to make it look as if politics had been cleaned-up, while all the time it was “business as usual” with Blair raising cash in dark corners with a “nudge-nudge-wink-wink” about peerages (and, so it seems – more seriously - government contracts).
(ii) New Labour has revealed where the loans came from under pressure and as an obvious (and effective) ruse to outmanoeuvre the Conservatives. Blair would not have revealed any of this if the newspapers had not got hold of it. The whole purpose of soliciting loans rather than donations was to enable secrecy (even from his own party).
(iii) It is true that both parties have always given peerages to party donors. But this is hardly a very ethical line of defence. (One of the most nauseating characteristics of Blair is the combination of heart-on-sleeve morality and religiosity with low skulduggery). And just because an abuse is a long-standing practice does not mean it is any less of an abuse.
All of this underlines the need to reform the House of Lords to remove the power to appoint peers from the party leaders. Blair, at Question Time, refused to take the opportunity to say that he believed in a predominantly elected second chamber. But making most peers elected (perhaps using Billy Bragg's "secondary mandate") and placing the nomnation of the minority of unelected peers in the hands of the Independent Commission would mean that party leaders could no longer trade in peerages and would not lead to the "gridlock" Blair fears. Perhaps something could also be done about the way in which the Commissioners are appointed. For details of the "secondary mandate" go ton this web-site: http://www.secondarymandate.org/how.html