David Cameron did his best to divert attention from Labour’s loan scandal last week by making a full disclosure of Tory loaners which was somewhat less than full. Some five million pounds worth of cash, much of it from foreigners, remained unaccounted for. This was because the party had paid it back.
Yes, the Tories have spent the last fortnight travelling the globe, desperately stuffing cash back into the pockets of foreign plutocrats so that they wouldn’t have to reveal their identities. It’s a bit like the Kent bank-robbers shoving pound notes through the door of Securitas and saying they’ve done nothing wrong. ‘Straight up guv – it was all on commercial rates’.
The fact that these were loans rather than actual donations doesn’t make them any less objectionable. Some of the loans were used as collateral so that the Tories could develop their Smith Square property. This allowed them to realise huge capital gains, which allowed them to raise yet more loans. It’s an amazing scam. You can make donations to a party without ever having to give them any actual money.
But who could these mystery benefactors be? I mean, what foreign businessman would want to bankroll the Tories – especially on the eve of an election they were almost certain to lose? Doesn’t it betray a want of business sense on the part of the global super-rich that they were prepared to invest in such dud stock? I think we should be told.
Of course, these foreign businessmen knew perfectly well what they were buying: influence. As one Northern business benefactor remarked last week, it was the only way to get London politicians to listen. That said it all. What is so striking from the Tory rich list is how easy it is to buy into the highest levels of British politics if you have a couple of million that you don’t mind parking with them for a whlie.. The Electoral Commission demanded that the Tories come clean, one hopes that they will continue to demand transparency until we know just exactly who has been buy into our political system.
Mind you, it hardly came as a surprise to learn that the Conservatives had been soliciting cash from businessmen. I mean, do bears crap in the woods? The Tory loans scandal is an embarrassment, but it is Labour’s involvement in the cash for honours affair that is really shocking. It is supposed to be the party of the people, the party of the dispossessed.
But that Labour Party no longer exists. It has been replaced by a new form of political life – a parasitical anti-party, which lives in and feeds on the decaying flesh of what was the biggest mass political organisation in British history – a federation of millions of trades unionists, socialists societies, co-operatives and intellectuals, which was dedicated to the struggle for workers rights in factories and parliament.
That party is receding into history along with those grainy images of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders thirty five years ago this summer when 15,000 workers took over the yards. Looking through my own archives recently I came across a “Current Account” documentary I made for the BBC in the Eighties about a simultaneous factory occupation of the British Leyland truck plant and the nearby Plessey electronics plant in Bathgate. We somehow got word that the workers at Plessey were planning to seize their means of production, and were able to film inside the factory gates as they literally locked the bosses out. Didn’t save the Plessey or BL, but it galvanised Scottish politics. The youngest chairman of the Scottish Labour Party, one George Galloway, visited the plants and delivered rousing speeches about workers control.
Excuse me for indulging in this syndicalist nostalgia. I do so only to point out how that kind of mass participation politics, linked to industrial militancy, is as dead as Soviet Communism. The trades unions are a shadow of their former selves and the Labour Party has largely ceased to exist as a mass membership party. It was the genius of the opportunist coterie around Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, that they saw a way of exploiting the Labour “brand” – which still had rather noble egalitarian and democratic associations – to create an entirely new kind of political entity. One that had no need for mass membership, industrial muscle or radical programmes. Just a single-minded pursuit of political power.
New Labour used focus groups to home in on the aspirations and fears of the small group of marginal swing voters who decide elections and targetted their message accordingly. Labour powered into office in 1997 on the back of public disgust at recessions, house prices and Tory sleaze – sleaze which now seems almost quaint. I mean, accepting a couple of grand for asking a parliamentary question seems pretty small time compared to selling peerages for donations (allegedly).
For this was the one weakness in the Blair project, and turned into its undoing: media politics requires large amounts of cash. In the past, Labour had relied on the trades unions for ninety percent of its funding, and had relied on its mass membership to run elections. The hundreds of thousands of stamp lickers, poster pasters and door knockers who worked for the party at election time for nothing. Blairites had to look elsewhere. They did. In the mid-90s they started approaching “high value” donors – businesses, businessmen, media stars, wealthy individuals, anyone indeed who could pay for a #1,000 a plate dinner, or be seduced by one of Lord Levy’s celebrity dinners.
But the party needed more than just thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. To win the last election, Labour needed fifteen million. So, a discreet bargain was struck: that provided the “high value” donors made a splash in the voluntary sector and flashed their chequebooks at worthy causes, they would also be able to buy into government by giving loans and cash to Tony Blair. Now, this bargain isn’t written down anywhere, and no one will ever admit that it exists. Lord Levy never said, straight up, that if you cough up a hundred large you can get a down payment on peerage. But he didn’t have to; it was obvious.
The independent Power Commission revealed last week that every donor who lent or gave Labour a million pounds has received a peerage or a knighthood. Labour insists there is no connexion between the two, and its just that wealthy philanthropists like to give Tony Blair their money ‘cos he’s such a straight kind of a guy. Look at all their other activities, they say. Which is precisely what the Lords Appointments Committee finally did, and promptly blocked Tony Blair’s attempt to give businessmen like Chai Patel peerages. He’d been criticised for conditions in his private nursing homes.
Inspector Knacker of the Yard is now investigating the cash for peerages affair, but don’t hold your breath. Like Lord Hutton’s inquiry into Iraq, this will find that no one’s fingerprints are at the scene of the crime. But that doesn’t mean that Labour won’t be punished. This has been a crushing defeat for the Blairites, and they know it. They can’t raise money like this in future and without that they can’t fight elections. No one in the party is going to work for them, so they can’t appeal to the membership.
New Labour is undone; the party’s over. It’s Gordon Brown’s historic obligation to invent a post-New Labour Labour party. The big question now is whether the Blairites will let him.