Politics as a Spectacle of War

John Rentoul

PMQs 300x192 Politics as a Spectacle of WarThat was the most enjoyable Prime Minister’s Questions in ages for those of us who enjoy politics as a spectacle of war. There was, as John Bercow, the Speaker, observed, a “wall of noise”. The smell of napalm hung over the Chamber. It was the most partisan, pure-politics form of combat, with almost nothing to do with the Real Issues that concern Real People.

It was also unexpected, in that we came to watch David Cameron do his lordly contempt for Ed Miliband’s cockamamie scheme for mending not ending the Labour Party’s link with the trade unions, and found the Prime Minister on the defensive, plainly not understanding what Miliband had proposed yesterday and unable to say at what level he wants political donations to be capped.

On the first point, few people do understand the Labour leader’s speech yesterday, but you would have thought the Prime Minister’s briefing team would have got on top of it. Cameron offered Miliband the chance to amend a Bill currently going through the Commons to enact his proposals, but Miliband’s plan to change the way unions affiliate to the party does not require legislation.

To explain. At present trade union members have to be given the chance, by law, to opt out of contributing to their union’s political fund. One of the uses of the political fund in unions that are affiliated to the Labour Party is to pay affiliation fees to Labour, currently about £3 a year per person, for all those members who have not opted out. Most unions have more money in their political funds than is needed to pay these fees. They use these funds to pay for “political” campaigning, such as poster adverts “defending the NHS”, but can also make additional “corporate” donations to Labour, usually in the run-up to general elections. Many unions, for teachers or civil servants, or those controlled by anti-Labour leftwingers, are not affiliated to Labour but also have political funds to pay for campaigns deemed by law to be political.

Ed Miliband’s plan is to leave the law on political funds (and the right to opt out of them) the same. He proposes a new step, which is to ask trade unionists who contribute to a political fund in Labour-affiliated unions whether they want their money to go to the Labour Party. Which it does at the moment; but Miliband rightly thinks that trade unionists should make a positive decision to support Labour. If they don’t want their money to go to Labour, it would still go into the union’s political fund. Some people have suggested that this would give union bosses more power, because they would have more money at their disposal to give to Labour in pre-election donations. But Miliband is also proposing a £5,000 annual limit on political donations, which would apply to trade unions (as corporate bodies, so it wouldn’t affect individuals’ affiliation fees), companies and individuals.

You can see why Paul Kenny’s point on the radio this morning was so important. “Do you want your 6p a week to go to the Labour Party?” will be, for many people, a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No). Even if it were phrased, “Do you want your 6p a week to go to the Labour Party (which, by the way, it already does)?” That is where Miliband was brave and right: most of the 3 million people who contribute to Labour funds this way probably don’t know that they are doing it. Better to have fewer of them doing it knowingly than to rely on inertia.

Obviously, the wording of that question is important, as is the consequence of an affirmative answer. Because Miliband did not say yesterday whether those who make a positive commitment to Labour would automatically become full members of the Labour Party, or whether they would become “registered supporters”, of which the party claims there are 30,000, or whether there would be a new category of “affiliated members”.

Those are details. On the principles, Ed Miliband is, belatedly, in the right position and therefore on firm ground.

Thus the unexpected turn, in which Miliband asked the Prime Minister at what level he would cap political donations. Cameron flannelled and then took refuge in a spurious argument, which is that setting the limit at £5,000 would “imply” a massive increase in taxpayer funding of political parties. Well, it would only imply that if parties couldn’t raise more from small donations and they wanted to continue to spend at the present level. (An implication foolishly supported by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which suggested an extra £23m in public funding if donations were capped at £10,000 a year.)

Thus, after Prime Minister’s Questions, it was Cameron’s spokeswoman who had the awkward questions to answer. She couldn’t say what level the Tories would accept, but ruled out £5,000 or £10,000. I think the Tories have proposed £50,000 in the cross-party talks on party funding, which broke down last week.

That is beginning to look like a fight that Miliband can win: the party of millions of working people giving Labour 6p a week versus the party of millionaires giving millions.

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  • Pacificweather

    First, look up the word degrees, then refresh your memory of the events surrounding the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes and then ask yourself if you are satisfied that the action taken, before and after the event was consistent with that of a liberal, free democracy. If you are satisfied then you are far too easily satisfied and are part of the problem if you are dissatisfied then you will see degrees of behaviour consistent with that of a police state. You may wish to write to your MP, as I did, and you may then be dissatisfied that you don’t receive from him an answer from the Home Secretary. You may not get a 3 am knock on the door but all protestations, in all forms, will be ignored, again, is not consistent with a free democracy.

    You will be satisfied with this, because you are complacent. You will split hairs rather than protest further as I have done. It won’t make a blind bit of difference because Britain is not a free democracy. If you can safely ignore all protest, if the majority don’t even give a damn, then you don’t need to put polonium in anyone’s tea because apathy has done the job for you.

  • mightymark

    Another neat shifter of goal posts. You have not addressed any of the points I made. Until and unless you do I consider my views, which in summary are that for all the undoubted faults of the Police, Britain is not a “Police State”, are vindicated.

  • Pacificweather

    It seems you didn’t find that dictionary. Let us consider which elements of the definition below have not occurred regularly in Britain in the last 20 years to some degree. I can find you worse police states but probably not in Europe.

    “A police state is a state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic, and political life of the population. A police state typically exhibits elements of totalitarianism and social control, and there is usually little or no distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive.
    The inhabitants of a police state experience restrictions on their mobility, and on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, which are subject to police monitoring or enforcement. Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force which operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional state.”

  • mightymark

    If you seriously believe that what you describe here to any “degree” whatsoever describes the UK then you are clearly so far beyond any kind of reasonable argument that there is no point whatsoever in continuing this discussion.

  • Pacificweather

    Good decision. I didn’t think you would want the examples which, of course, you new I would have ready and waiting. Let me know if you decide you would like to become informed. But frankly, life is much more comfortable if you remain complacent.

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