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Thursday, 18 March 2010

You're slightly sleazier than we are

The well trodden battle lines of political party funding are being revisited by the main parties. Once again, it seems to be an argument where all the parties bluster and cry, but noone is guilt free. Everyone has their skeleton in the cupboard and an axe to grind for their political foes.

For Labour: it's the unions. For the Tories: it's Lord Ashcroft. For the Lib Dems: well, the only big donor they ever had turned out to be a crook - unlucky for them. So, David Cameron - after enduring weeks of Ashcroft bashing and an uncomfortable admission that Ashcroft is a non-dom (no surprises there) is now bashing Labour's funding by a major trade union that's threatening a major British Airways strike action. How dare Labour, Cameron asks, receive £11m in funding from such a disruptive force?

What's not been highlighted much in this row is that in bashing the unions, the Tories are back in core vote territory. They need to win seats in the North. Labour seats where there may be many union members or those who may think it's fair enough: a union of thousands of members, all of whom are UK taxpayers, can all club together to pay some of their money to the union and for the union (and the member has a choice here) to donate some of their subscription to the Labour party. To the public at large, once explained (and many target voters for the Tories won't need this explained), this sounds acceptable. Many simply won't buy the kind of chicanery that Greg Hands embarassingly attempted to sustain on Newsnight on Monday evening: namely that Lord Ashcroft's millions from a single non-domiciled, non-UK taxpayer are somehow more (or as, what is their point exactly?) acceptable than thousands of union members chipping into a fund to support a party more inclined with their political viewpoint.

The Tories fire here may be running out - hence Cameron's desire to go strongly on Unite at PMQs today. The strike will probably be averted. And it will become clearer that it is perfectly possible for Unite to fund the Labour Party and to support government policies x, y and z, but still defend the legitimate interests of SOME of its members against the might of British Airways. The argument that Unite are swaying government policy seems a little lost in that context. And if the strike is averted - with the Government spinning the line that they stood firm and resolved the issue constructively whilst the Tories played politics - the Tories may just end up with egg on their face.

The key message in all of this is that this is probably a dead end for all parties. But it shouldn't be: once again, issues of funding and influence are being thrown around by all parties with not much of the mud sticking but everyone looking shabby. A further blow to the credibility of politics and politicians. But they're thrown around in a childish and inconsequential fashion. No party is willing to grapple with the issue, sacrifice something and clean up party funding. And once again, the same tired accusations are wheeled out.

This latest outing proves that the debate hasn't yet moved on from "you're slightly worse than we are" to "how can we clean up funding for good". It is accusation heavy, solution light.

PREDICTION: CONSERVATIVE MAJORITY OF 20

A bad day for Brown. He admitted his error in telling Chilcot that defence spending HADN'T risen year on year. In some years it fell in real terms. Yet to be seen what impact this has. Personally I feel that Chilcot thus far - and Brown's giving of evidence before the election - will neutralise Iraq as an issue at the election. Defence spending is unlikely to be a key issue - there will be others. Brown fessing up may also (also) slightly dent the Tory accusation that he can't be straight with the public. Massively belated, sure - but Brown has for once admitted his error. Cameron's own recognition of this - meant to be damning - that "that's the first time the PM has admitted an error in three years" didn't come across as strongly as he might have hoped. Cameron needs to decide whether to stick the knife in on defence spending - the spectre of using the troops for political gain will probably caution him against that.

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