Thin dividing line
The 'cash for access' row has once again exposed the contradictions inherent in capitalism, writes Peter Manson
No wonder the Tories have suddenly slumped in the polls and are now 10 points behind Labour. Hot on the heels of the PR debacle over the budget, with its ‘granny tax’ and handouts for the rich, we have the disaster of the latest ‘cash for access’ row. The affair has neatly illustrated the nature of the class divide - put simply, the bourgeoisie funds parties and politicians to act in its interests; and we ought to back those who serve us in the same way. Quite straightforward really, and it is not surprising that mainstream commentators have tried to muddy the waters. But unfortunately, as we shall see, not everyone on the left sees things quite so clearly.
It is hardly a secret that capitalists, bankers and the rich in general always attempt to use their positions of power to influence political decision-making. Two years ago, on February 8 2010, the then leader of the opposition, David Cameron, talked about the “next big scandal waiting to happen” - namely, “the far too cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”.
He actually did a pretty good job of describing this relationship and the lobbying it produces: “… we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business to find the right way to get its way.” But the Conservative Party believes in “market economics, not crony capitalism”, he said, which is why Cameron was so determined to end this cosiness once and for all. Or so he said.
But we have all read about the reality and watched the video of Peter Cruddas - Conservative Party co-treasurer until his forced resignation following the undercover investigation conducted by The Sunday Times. Just make a donation to the Tories for, say, £250,000 and “things will open up” for you big time, Cruddas is heard saying. A quarter-million buys you an invite to number 10 or Chequers for lunch or dinner, and “You really do pick up a lot of information … when you see the prime minister.” What is more, “within that room everything is confidential - you can ask him practically any question you want.” In fact, “If you’re unhappy about something, we listen to you and put it into the policy committee at number 10”. To give just one example, a generous donor was personally able to express his anger to Cameron about proposals to legalise same-sex marriage, said Cruddas.
The embarrassing footage threw the Tories into a panic and they produced a series of contradictory statements. First they pretended that Cruddas had been “way out of line and made outrageous claims”. Dutifully he concurred, claiming that all his big talk had just been “bluster”. So it was simply false to allege that rich donors were hosted at number 10, was it? A spokesman initially claimed that “no donation resulting from any such offers had ever been accepted”. As for Cameron, “If he wants to have friends around, that’s a matter for him.”
Within hours, however, the Tories were in damage-limitation mode: it was “exceptionally unusual” for donors to visit Cameron’s Downing Street flat. But then Cameron himself soon put paid to that one, admitting that 15 such donors, who had coughed up more than £25 million between them, had secretly been hosted at Downing Street or Chequers.
The Sunday Times had got wind of all this when Cameron’s former aide, Sarah Southern, was heard boasting that she had made a “tidy sum” by introducing a client to the prime minister. Subsequently the press had a field day with their speculation about who might have raised what with the PM and how policy might have been influenced as a result. For instance, Michael Spencer, the owner of spread-betting firm City Index, dined with Cameron in February in return for his recent donations of over £3.6 million. And it was Spencer who had “led the campaign to scrap the 50p top rate of income tax” (The Daily Telegraph March 27). Labour MP Grahame Morris has pointed out that private health companies with their eye on lucrative pickings in the national health service have donated a total of £8 million to the Tories.
If we take the example of Spencer, in my opinion it is far too simplistic - not to say absurd - to suggest that the 5p tax cut resulted from his visit to number 10. Spencer was actually voicing the demands of capital as a whole, or at least a substantial section of it, when he argued that businessmen need greater ‘incentive’ to invest and get us out of the current stagnation. There was a substantial consensus within the ruling class on this question, which is why George Osborne included it in his budget, knowing it would provoke an angry response amongst the millions of workers and middle classes hit by the hard times.
So what can explain the contradiction between Cameron’s seemingly genuine desire, expressed just months before the 2010 general election, to end “the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear” and the continuation - possibly in a more intense and better-organised form - of exactly that? The problem is that capitalism is a system based on the promotion of individual business interests and it cannot operate unless those interests are facilitated. While, especially in the case of the Tories, there is a very close connection between the political caste and business, the two are not identical and so it is necessary for the former to be made fully aware of capital’s subjective needs.
Partly this awareness comes about formally: through conferences, official meetings, the exchange of ideas; but partly informally: through “the quiet word in your ear” and so on. But there is a further contradiction: that between the objective interests of capital as a whole and the subjective interests of individual capitals. So the demands of individual capitalists may be fully in line with those objective interests or they may be entirely sectional - and perhaps in opposition to the whole.
It is the conflict between the part and the whole that produces the contradiction. In other words, it is one thing to attempt to advance the interests of the whole system, but quite another to be seen promoting sectional interests at the expense of the latter. Many have commented on the thin dividing line between what passes for standard bourgeois practice and actual corruption, which can be largely traced to this contradiction - and to the impossibility of completely separating the interests of the whole from those of the individual.
All the Tories can do is hope to divert attention from the shambles by pointing to the opposition: “Unlike the Labour Party, where union donations are traded for party policies, donations to the Conservative Party do not buy party or government policy,” read their statement. It is, of course, an obscenity to equate the defensive struggle of the working class to limit their exploitation through collective organisation to the attempts by capital to increase and deepen that exploitation. But it is an outright lie to claim that “donations to the Conservative Party do not buy party or government policy”. Why on earth donate at all in that case? The reality is that political parties are shaped by class interests - you pay your money and hope to be rewarded. And you usually are.
The exception actually arises with the Labour Party. Because of the intermediate interests of the trade union bureaucracy, the subscriptions of millions of union members, intended to defend and advance the collective interest of our class, are in large part wasted - especially the political fund, used to write blank cheques to Labour. Because of the bureaucracy’s fear of something worse, it is prepared to continue handing over such sums without lifting a finger to ensure we get anything approaching value for money.
It goes without saying that the answer lies not in breaking the Labour link and trusting the bureaucrats to fund an alternative, more ‘responsive’, party, but to hold them to account - to take back control of our working class organisations, not least the unions. It would be an excellent thing if trade unions and other working class bodies not only continued to pool their resources in order to fund a party established to serve our interests, but also ensured that the party actually delivered.
That is why we say, just as capital pours millions into funding the parties of big business, so we should oppose all attempts to prevent us doing the same thing to further the needs of the working class majority. There should be no limits on donations (and no bar on foreign donations either - the struggle of our class is an international one). There should be no state funding of political parties - that would come with strings attached to ensure we could not effectively challenge state power.
As the Morning Star correctly says, further state funding of parties would “entrench the status quo” (editorial, March 26). However, the Star continues: “Parties should rely primarily on their supporters for financial backing, but arrangements should be transparent and jail sentences should await those trading cash for political influence.” So union leaders should be locked up if they try to get their money’s worth from the Labour Party?
The following day, the Star editorial got itself into another tangle over the use of official residences such as 10 Downing Street or Chequers. Apparently “most reasonable people” think that they “should be restricted to government business” (such as drawing up the latest cuts package or planning the next imperialist war). Yes, the Star admits that number 10 is also a “family home”, but did you know that “one of the dinners was actually held downstairs … rather than in the private residence”? (March 27).
For its part Socialist Worker commented: “The budget last week saw the Tories throw money at the rich. They did it in precisely the way that their rich donors asked - by cutting tax on profits and for high earners.” Quite right. But what about the conclusion drawn in the paper’s short commentary piece? “Lobbying is organised corruption,” it reads (March 31). We can put things politely and say that this is badly thought-through - will the Socialist Workers Party henceforth cease organising lobbies of parliament, council premises and union executives?
No, we should not oppose attempts to influence political parties either by political action or by financing them outright. To propose either ‘solution’ is to play the ruling class game.