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Those party election expenses in full ( from 25/4/06)

I’m sure that the country will find it immensely reassuring to learn that our great political parties retain a sense of humour at election time. What cheese-paring skinflint would deny a few hundred pounds for Dr Spock outfits for Labour’s attacks on the extra-terrestiral Tory MP, John Redwood? Or the three and a half grand spent by the Tories on groundhog suits – to underline the repetitive quality of Labour’s election promises? And is there a voter so mirthless that they would think #1400 too much for the Tories’ diverting “Whack-a-Mole” video?

But look, seriously, as a political culture we really have to grow up, live in the real world, get sense of proportion. Cherie Blair may have revealed herself to be Labour’s answer to Imelda Marcos, in her ability to spend #7,700 on daily hairstyling. But surely the public want their leaders’ spouses to look their best? I mean, the Tory leader, Michael Howard, spent #3,683 on make-up alone – it’s dog eat dog out there.

I’m confident that all those Labour Party activists who give their services to the party for nothing, those Labour members who loyally pay their annual subs, those pensioners who’ve donated their pennies to the cause, will have raised a silent cheer upon learning that their cash has been well spent. That Cherie, who scrapes by on a lawyers pittance of #250,000 a year, will not have to go tousled into the campaign lights. #275 a day is the least the Labour Party could do for its First Lady.

You see, it’s important that Labour politicians, and their fragrant wives, don’t feel like second class citizens when they go touting for cash among the nation’s super-rich. New Labour, new frocks. Holding fund-raising dinners at Lord Levy’s house doesn’t come cheap. Tony Blair has standards to keep up, and with that #3.6 million mortgage on his Connaught Street retirement home, you can’t expect him to shell out for Cherie.

And we don’t want self-styled media moralists challenging Labour’s right to spend whatever it takes to get elected. This is surely what democracy is all about. In a free society, it is the duty of all politicians seeking electoral office to solicit millions in secret donations so that they can afford the very latest propaganda techniques and commercial psychology to bamboozle the voters. Focus groups, misleading statistics and emotive advertising works well for junk food manufacturers and drinks companies – so why not for political parties?

Of course, there will be quibblers who would deny the former Labour spin-doctor, Alastair Campell his ten grand a month for advising Tony Blair on how best to lie to the media. But a capacity for untruth is an essential part of any modern politician’s electoral repertoire – and it doesn’t come cheap. To lie effectively takes years of experience and close personal coaching from people who have spent a lifetime in the trade of deception.

The results were there for all to see: Tony Blair was re-elected despite having taken Britain into an illegal war in Iraq, without the promised second UN resolution, or any of the WMD he said was going to be used against Britain. Yes, in electoral terms, this was money well spent.

Similarly, importing the Australian spin-doctor Lynton Crosby to sell the message of the Tory leader, Michael Howard, was cheap at the price – and that price was around half a million pounds, according to the Electoral Commission. Mr Crosby has a unique ability to tap into the mind of the ordinary voter, there to exploit dark and irrational fears of foreigners taking over the country and asylum seekers raping young white women. Under Mr Crosby’s guidance, the Tories spent #900,000 on direct mail shots on immigration alone.

Yes, this political sage from down-under knows just how to take political debate into the gutter where it belongs. It takes immense reserves of cynicism and irresponsibility which you simply cannot find in Britain. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking” he said. You may be thinking that this is one immigrant who should be sent back where he came from. But you aren’t the UK Conservative Party.

As for John Prescott’s bus – well, really, what do people expect Labour to do with the Deputy Prime Minister at election time? You couldn’t have him answering questions on policy – no one can understand a word he says – or debating with members of the general public. Mr Prescott is liable to punch them in the head, as he did famously in the 2001 general election.

Nothing wrong with a bit of fisticuffs, of course – shows that Prescott is a true Brit who know how to handle himself. But in the interests of public safety it was clearly wise to send him off to the rougher, remoter parts of the realm, where working folk are more accustomed to speaking with their fists. It was Labour’s duty to send Mr Prescott on a wide-ranging and extensive bus tour of the provinces where he would do as little harm as possible. The cost really is irrelevant at a mere #264,000 plus #75,000 in makeovers. Mr Prescott’s cage alone could have cost half of that.

Now, as a member of the press, I feel I should declare an interest here since I may well have been among those who benefited from the #360 spent by Gordon Brown’s team on coffee ands biscuits during his rally in Edinburgh. I don’t recall helping Charles Kennedy get through his bar bill of #101 in forty eight hours, at the Liberal Democrat campaign launch, but then I don’t expect he can either.

No wonder the Liberal Democrat leader needed those six new suits – the others probably had to be disposed of as a fire hazard. But, look, at #5,000. that’s less than a grand per tin flute – a ridiculously small sum of money for a politician’s working wear. We can’t expect them to go to T K Maxx. Taxis, helicopters, chauffeur-driven limousines it all costs, you know, to take democracy to the voters. The Tories spent #57,000 on mouse mats and mugs alone.

The breakdown of the parties’ 2005 general election expenses was released by the Electoral Commission and has provoked widespread coverage in the UK press. Though Herald readers may recall that the details of the Conservative Party’s expenses were originally revealed six weeks ago by the Sunday Herald’s political editor, Paul Hutcheon, after a query under the Freedom of Information Act . All of which confirms that democracy in Britain is in rude good health and the London media can be relied upon to keep an alert eye on what’s going on in our name, provided it is handed to them on a plate.

But, look, we don’t want politics to be about boring things like policies and promises. We want our politicians to have a sense of humour, of the absurd. Why, the biggest joke of all is that – in future – they actually expect the taxpayer to fund this rubbish.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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