In much of what he said he was, of course, absolutely right. The sleaze under his leadership (if that is the right word) of the Tory Party had everything to do with the individuals found out and nothing to do with the Tory party itself. There were the philanderers (serial and otherwise), the cads, the love children, the sexual deviant, the cash-for-questions johnnies and the perjurers. But these were all matters that involved either personal gratification, personal enrichment or the saving of the political and personal necks of the malefactors.
It is for those individuals that we recall Tory sleaze. It was so damaging because of John Major’s stupid speech which launched his ‘Back to Basics’ campaign. I remember wincing when I heard it, for I reckoned at the time that it was bound to lead, as it did, to a string of revelations of the misdeeds of this or that Tory and the chorus of ‘hypocrites’ that followed as night follows day. Sure enough out of the woodwork emerged the likes of Mellor, Norris, Yeo, Hamilton, Milligan, Brown, Ashby et al. We did not then know that Sir John himself was Chief Hypocrite by virtue of his leg over activities with the unappetising Edwina Currie.
Labour’s misdeeds have been of an altogether different kind. Blair made much of the notional sundering of the traditional relationship with the Trade Unions (the Clause 4 moment) and the implicit decline in financial support which followed. Thus he deemed it necessary to replace those sources of cash for the New Labour Project with cash from a succession of rich tycoons willing to bankroll it. I believe that it went further than mere ‘replacement’: I reckon a conscious decision was taken to enroll as many such people as possible with a view to vastly outspending the Tories in a bid to secure power for as long as they possibly could.
Sustaining Labour in power has, thus, always been the core value in the New Labour Project and this led them very quickly into a culture of ‘cash for peerages’, ‘cash-for-access’ and ‘cash-for-favours’. It was no accident that the Ecclestone affair started before Labour had got back into power: Ecclestone gave his loot in January 1997, four months before the 1997 General Election. This was to establish a pattern that has persisted to this day of rich men with no particular history of love for Socialism or Labour shelling out loads of moolah, often in the run up to an election.
Ecclestone, coincidentally he would say though many would disbelieve him, had a little problem over an upcoming ban on tobacco advertising which would have seriously reduced the viability of Formula 1 car racing which was then awash with Tobacco Dollars. Lo and behold, the ban was significantly modified not long after Labour won the 1997 election. (The BBC has a timeline here). The whiff of burning tobacco was everywhere.
The rest, as they say, is history. Some of Labour’s sleaze has been personal: Mandelson (twice), Robinson and that old goat Blunkett (twice) come to mind. But for the rest, those matters have been based on relationships which had as their object the sustaining of Labour in power by the accretion of funds enabling them to fund three successful elections. That is institutionalized and systemic sleaze.
Sir John, I am afraid, pulled his punches when attacking Labour. He declined to call this behaviour ‘corrupt’. On that score he was utterly wrong.
The whole business of Labour’s fund-raising from rich men has been fundamentally corrupt in a way that we have not seen in British politics since the days before the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the era of Rotten Boroughs. And the way in which they have legislated on party funding has been an exercise of particularly corrupt cynicism: the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 had a significant flaw in it (the failure to include loans as reportable donations, loans which could later quietly be written off) which enabled Labour to evade scrutiny of its relationships with rich men and whatever trade-offs were thus involved.
It also had the flaw which was the Labour Party’s unwillingness to obey the law, as the recent donorgate scandal has revealed. Many would suspect that the law was drafted with the loans loophole as a deliberate omission and with a mind to circumvent the law in any event by using proxy donors.
I cannot think of any other description of Labour’s fund-raising activities as being anything other than ‘corrupt’. In failing to call a spade a spade, therefore, Sir John has both missed a fine opportunity and has let Labour off the hook. I, for one, am not disposed to be so generous.