Posts Tagged ‘Edward Short’

Quentin Letts and the Tory Attack on Short Money

January 21, 2016

Last week or so Mike over at Vox Political put up a piece about the Tories wishing to abolish Short money. This is the funding given by the state to opposition parties. I’m not actually surprised the Tories want to get rid of it. They’re authoritarians anyway, who hate any kind of opposition. But I’m particularly not surprised they’ve decided to attack Short money, as it’s one of the issues criticised by Quentin Letts in his 2009 book, Bog Standard Britain (London: Constable and Robinson Ltd).

Letts is the parliamentary sketch writer for the Daily Heil. He’s been one of the panellists at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, and also on at least one edition of Have I Got News For You. Here’s what he has to say about it in his book:

Our political class has a horror of losing its perks. Nothing new. In 1970, soon after losing the general election, Harold Wilson was seen queuing for a taxi late one night outside the Members’ Entrance to the Commons. Friends of Wilson were distraught. A few days earlier he had been Prime Minister but there he now was, waiting for a cab like the rest of humanity. Instead of seeing this, as they should have done, as eloquent testimony to the ephemeral nature of elected office, Harold’s cronies secured him a state-paid limo and chauffeur.

We have been paying ever since for Leaders of the Opposition to be thus pampered. In 1974, having regained the premiership, Wilson returned the compliment by slipping the shadow cabinet a wad of public money. This ‘Short money’, named after Edward Short, the Labour minister who presented the proposal to Parliament, is now worth some £7 million a year to the Opposition parties. short money was given on the premise that an Opposition would be improved by having researchers who could prepare meaningful policies. It would result in better government. Nice one! In practice, Short money allows an Opposition to save its money for election campaigning. This creates an arms race of electoral fundraising which in turn results in dodgy donors being given undue pre-eminence over the political parties’ mass membership. Short money also allows Opposition spokesmen to keep large retinues which makes them feel important and saves them having to do so much thinking for themselves. Result: an overblow secretariat, lazy parliamentarians, hefty bills which have to be picked up by the taxpayer. Short money is an expensive con. All it has done is expand a professional political class. And all because socialist Harold’s friends thought it was improper that he should have to queue for a taxi. (pp. 219-20).

Letts’ party political bias is evident here. He despises ‘Socialist’ Harold Wilson, for having money given to him and his party after he left office. I’ve no idea whether the story about the limo and Wilson waiting at a taxi stand is true. I assume it is. But that’s not the reason the Tories want to get rid of it, nor is the explanation that it’s all about curtailing the bloated retinues and pomp of the political class. If that were the case, then Cameron would be happy to see greater clarity of the political process through the Freedom of Information Act, and by quite happy to see MPs’ expenses scrutinised by the press.

In fact, the opposite is the case. Cameron and his hand-picked cronies, including Jack Straw, are doing their best to rip the guts out of FOIA. They don’t like people challenging government decisions, and particularly not when it comes to MPs’ expenses. Hence the government got very huffy when the Independent asked for them under the Freedom of Information Act. Campaigners and journalists making such requests have been told that the Act is to allow people to understand how government decisions are made, not for them to challenge them. So shut up, run along, and do what we tell you. We’re back to the old slogan of Mussolini:

Believe.
Obey.
Fight.

As for forcing parties to rely on their grassroots’ members’ subscriptions, rather than contributions from wealthy donors, that’s a load of hogwash as well. The Tories are raking huge wads of cash from their backers in business, as well as corporate largesse from courtesy of lobbyists. And they have absolutely no interest in what their ordinary members have to say. The local, constituency parties have complains again and yet again that they are ignored at Westminster. The effect of corporate funding on the parties has been that they’ve all shrunk, both Labour and the Tories. The Tories are now under 100,000 members. That’s a massive fall for the party that was, not so long ago, Britain’s largest, with at least a quarter of million members.

They simple fact is that the Tories want to stifle the opposition anyway they can. And they’re trying to do it by starving them of funds. This explains the latest Tory attack on the union levy. And simply by their attack on the Freedom of Information Act, it seems to bear out that the Short money must actually be doing the task for which it was intended, namely, allow the Opposition to frame policies better. That’s clearly a danger as they’re trying to stop people using the Freedom of Information Act, not just by narrowing even further what may be released under it, but also by raising the fees charged.

This is clearly a very, very frightened government.

Well, if Cameron wants to play that game, then I suggest Labour also plays it too. Mike suggested that Labour should immediately cease any co-operation with the Tories, such as the pairing agreement, which states that if one Tory MP can’t make it to a debate, his Labour opposite number must be drop out as well. The Tories only have a majority of 16. Let’s make it impossible for them to govern.

Way back in the 1970s and ’80s, any government that consider cutting Short money could count on being told by the Mandarins in Whitehall that the policy was ‘very courageous’. Meaning, to those who used to watch Yes, Minister, that it was likely to lose them election. Let’s put that into practice, and make sure that it does.

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