Has there ever been a story that has made you more nauseous about the state of British public life than the saga of Frank Hester, Diane Abbott, the 10 million quid and the Conservative Party’s desperate attempt to keep his cash? There is so much that is unpleasant here that this may indeed represent the nadir of our politics.

More than anything, it exposes the fault line in the way political parties are funded. Who can possibly think, in the light of Hester’s £10m donation, that it’s the right way for the world’s most noble democracy to conduct itself? Of course there should be a limit on the size of donations – by any measure, £10m is an obscene amount of money to inject into a system that is supposedly built on fairness of opportunity and equality of voice – and even if Hester wanted nothing more than a seat on Rishi Sunak’s table at the Tories’ summer ball, the vivid impression it gives is that our politics is for sale to the highest bidder.

Not only that, but it’s up for sale to a man whose grotesquely offensive and racist remarks about Ms Abbott – “You see Diane Abbott… you just want to hate all black women”, “I think she should be shot” – are apparently those of a serial offender. According to a Guardian investigation, he has allegedly made “jokes” about Indians and Chinese workers in front of his staff, and his protestations that “racism is a poison… in public life” don’t really mitigate the offence.

Whether he should be forgiven, having apologised for his comments in a profuse and extravagant manner, is a matter for Ms Abbott alone, but we in the public realm are entitled to write him off – if we wish – as a bigot who has no right to influence our politics.

There are already enough iniquities in our political settlement – the first-past-the-post system being the most egregious – without the injection of millions from those who seek to influence policy. And this applies as much to the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party as it does to the uber-rich individuals who donate to the Conservatives.

First of all, the Tories can do us all a favour by returning Hester’s money. Even though it means that Rishi Sunak wouldn’t be able to afford the fuel for his helicopter trips, it would restore some seemliness to this once-grand party. As Lord Patten, a former Conservative minister said, it is an “open and shut case” that the Tories should hand back the money.

And then we should bring the matter of political funding back on the public agenda. I know it’s not the most engaging of topics in that it doesn’t really affect people’s daily lives, but it’s now 13 years since it was last investigated in a serious way.

Then, a report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life made a series of sensible recommendations, chief among them a £10,000 limit on individual donations, a 50p levy from taxpayers to fund parties at £3 per vote (at Westminster) and £1.50 per vote (in devolved legislatures), and a limit on campaign spending. They were immediately rejected under the Turkeys Voting For Christmas Act, with MPs saying the public just wouldn’t wear it.

They were probably right, but that’s because the case has never been made assiduously enough. And when there are bills to pay, it’s hard to get worked up over the feeble state of our political arrangement. But I’d argue it’s just as important as any matter of public debate, and affects us all in a profound way. Daily life in Britain is miserable enough without having to worry about Frank Hester and what he does with his spare millions.

QOSHE - British politics is in the gutter – how we fund it has to change - Simon Kelner
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British politics is in the gutter – how we fund it has to change

21 1
15.03.2024

Has there ever been a story that has made you more nauseous about the state of British public life than the saga of Frank Hester, Diane Abbott, the 10 million quid and the Conservative Party’s desperate attempt to keep his cash? There is so much that is unpleasant here that this may indeed represent the nadir of our politics.

More than anything, it exposes the fault line in the way political parties are funded. Who can possibly think, in the light of Hester’s £10m donation, that it’s the right way for the world’s most noble democracy to conduct itself? Of course there should be a limit on the size of donations – by any measure, £10m is an obscene amount of money to inject into a system that is supposedly built on fairness of opportunity and equality of voice – and even if Hester wanted nothing more than a seat on Rishi Sunak’s table at the Tories’ summer ball, the vivid........

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