We urgently need to take the big money out of UK politics


There is an apochryphal story – or so I am assured – that the massive Liberal landslide victory in the general election of 1905-6 derived from an eight-word manifesto – about reversing the mischief wrought on the nation by the Conservatives.

But surely, you might reply, the problem with Keir Starmer is that the reverse of that – if only he would give us an inkling of what he was thinking of doing in government, just a few details, he might influence a few more sceptics to vote for his party.

But this flies in the face of what will probably face any new government when they look at the horror of the public finances, which they only discover after they take office. It will definitely give them less time to think about what they will need to do to plug the increasingly major holes in Britain’s threadbare constitution.

That was the argument that was put forward in a new Radix Big Tent pamphlet by two former Lib Dem MPs, who have written ifely about the current threat to parliamentary democracy.

This is what they wrote in Taking on the threat to parliamentary democracy:

“Looking ahead, an incoming government this year will not inherit the benign economic legacy Blair did from Major in 1997. It will be hugely challenging and, while a regime, may endeavour to reverse the worst effects on living standards and pulic services, the political tide could turn swiftly.

“The exaggerated distortion of our outdated first-past-the-post electoral system could threaten a swing to an ultra right-wing opposition on a minority vote in 2029. If Labour should win the election, but then ignore urgent political reform, which even their grassroots and trade unions now see as necessary, that new government might not only prove temporary but could go down in history as an unprecedented disaster…

“That is an avoidable fate, as long as a new government recognises that national revival should include long overdue political reform alongside their economic, social, environmental and international agendas.”

That has to be correct. Another issue is what the new government should do first, Perhaps, say some experts, they need a bill. That could showcase their ambition to govern ethically.

Perhaps the most urgent problem is how to take the big money out of politics. Since 2019, new rules on political funding has been weakening the integrity of democracy, say the pamphlet’s authors, Nick Harvey an Paul Tyler, after ministers unilaterally increased the limits on campaign spending by national parties form £20 million to £35 million.

There was no consensus, no debate and no need for this – no party’s campaign came anywhere near that total at the last general election in 2019.

As much as £14 million has come into UK politics since 2015 via ‘unincorporated associations’ which escape official scrutiny. The Committee on Standards in Public Life identified this loophole “as a route for foreign money to influence UK elections”. Even so, Michael Gove refused to close it in July.

The pamphlet puts it like this:

“In a British context, £35 million seems a fortune. But in other settings this is small change. Wealthy individuals around the globe indulge in enthusiasms for English football’s premier league by buying our clubs for vast sums. They will spend £35m on a single transaction, buying an extra player to provide cover for some key player, without even planning to pick him regularly unless another player suffers long-term injury. If these foreign billionaires have a hobby for politics rather than football, our democracy is for sale very cheaply…

They could buy up all our political parties for less than the price of a striker’s transfer fee.”

Radux Big Tent published the pamphlet, which is available here. It is based on the book Can Parliament Take Back Control? Britain’s elective dictatorship in the Johnson aftermath, which includes the full text of the 1977 Dimbelby lecture by Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone on ‘Elective Dictatorship’. It is available as a paperback from here and as an ebook from here.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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