Monday, 26 November 2007

So Watt

No doubt Gordon Brown is telling the truth when he says that he had never heard of the property developer, David Abrahams, now revealed as Labour’s third biggest donor, before the weekend. And it may well be true that Labour’s former general secretary, Peter Watt, was the only party official to know about the circumstances behind Abrahams’ secret donations to the party.

So what.

No individual, and certainly not the party general secretary, acts in a moral vacuum. This is not a one-off error of judgement. Rather, it is only the latest example of an organisation that, despite the much-vaunted personal integrity of its leader, has lost its moral bearings on such issues.

It’s not that the individuals concerned are personally corrupt (no Labour politician has stood to gain a penny from any of the various party funding controversies of the past decade). But yet again, the need for cash has been allowed to override what ought to be the normal reservations about accepting money from dubious sources or in dubious circumstances.

From the extraordinary decision to accept Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation at the same time that Tony Blair’s first administration was granting a Grand Prix waiver on the tobacco advertising ban, through the ‘blind trusts’, the secret loans and the ‘cash for honours’ debacles, to the current ‘I hate politicians but you can put my name to a couple of hundred grand if you want’ farrago, the Labour Party has lost all sense of financial probity.

If you are going to use the devil’s money to do god’s work (or something like that), then at the very least you must do so transparently and honestly. Better still, you should avoid all large donors altogether and put a cap on donations.

But then you’d have to look for your funding from other sources instead. It would mean a renewed dependence on trade unionists who pay the political levy. It would mean having to recruit new members to replace the 200,000-plus who have left in the past ten years. And it would mean giving people a reason for paying out their hard-earned cash.

When it came to a choice between individual party members and trade unionists on the one hand and a tiny number of rich donors on the other, New Labour knew which it preferred. And so did its general secretary Peter Watt.

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