On Monday afternoon, 26 March, David Cameron’s office said that they could not say who had come to private dinners with Cameron, as prime minister, because the office kept lists only of guests at official dinners paid for by the Government.
Within half an hour they had been forced to “find” the list they evidently had of guests at “meals for donors... paid for by the Conservative Party”.
Cameron is still saying that Tory Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas was freelancing when he told undercover journalists that he could get them Cameron’s ear, and an invitation to dinner, for £250,000, but it is plain that there has been a whole system of dinners for donors.
Labour should not just complain, but demand that Cameron resign.
The Government is trying to regain ground by reopening talks on reform of political party funding. The long-brewed Kelly report on the issue, published in November 2011, fell flat because no party accepted its conclusions, especially not if further state funding for political parties was ruled out, which even Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg admitted it was while social spending was being slashed.
Now the Tories will try again.
The prize they seek is abolition or restriction of the unions’ right to fund a political party, i.e. of the main workable way that large numbers of working-class people, individually poor, can assemble enough cash to run a party able to compete with the big parties financed by the rich.
Ed Miliband has in the past said that he wants to do a deal with the Tories and Lib Dems on this. Perhaps he thinks this stance is a way of being “clever”, because a deal will prove impossible.
Labour should instead clearly defend unions’ political rights. The Tories may be willing to accept a ceiling on donations from companies and wealthy individuals — relatively easy to circumvent, by way of dividing donations into smaller amounts channelled through family members and hangers-on — if they can stymie the unions.
Cameron’s backstop defence is that the wealthy donors may have been able to buy dinner with him, but they could not “buy policy”. Presumably this is true, up to a point. If an individual plutocrat could get Tory policy tilted their way just by paying £250,000 and getting to the dinner table, then the other plutocrats would complain.
Yet plutocrats — or at least, those plutocrats who don’t get Cameron’s ear already from knowing him at school or university, or inviting him to come horse-riding — obviously feel that getting the Prime Minister’s ear is worthwhile. That raises another issue significant for the labour movement.
The atrophy of party democracy means that in the Labour Party as among the Tories, a lot depends on who can weave their way through the troops of aides and advisers and security guards to get the ear of “The Leader”.
That things work that way with Labour is more grievous than them working that way with the Tories, who have never been a democratic party and who, after all, exist to promote the interests of exactly the sort of people who can pay £250,000 for dinner.
The “cash for dinners” scandals highlights the need to fight to win a democratic regime in the Labour Party, one where policy is decided by democratic conferences and elected committees and not by “The Leader”.