The last time the three parties sat down in an “adult” fashion to discuss party funding – and how to reform it – the talks broke down in an acrimonious fashion. The Hayden Phillips review ran into the sand in late 2007 (although he believes he was inches away from an agreement).
Tomorrow (Thursday) the can of worms will be reopened by the the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is interviewing witnesses including Sir Hayden, Jack Straw, Francis Maude and David Heath. The sessions start at 9.30am at Church House in Dean’s Yard.
Reform of party funding is in the coalition agreement (page 21).
Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, is keen to end the passive way in which millions of pounds are delivered from the unions to Labour via their political funds. In particular the Tories are unhappy – and have been for years – with the fact that members have to “opt out” of the funds rather than “opt in”. That, they argue, is unfair given that many union members are Tory supporters.
The coalition is not prepared to risk acting unilaterally, however. It knows that hitting Labour’s coffers without a wider package of reforms to party funding would leave it open to charges of being partisan. Instead the Tories and Lib Dems will attend the inevitably slow multi-party talks with Labour and others that will follow the committee’s eventual report.
I’m told by an ally of Maude that he does favour a cap on donations as a quid pro quo – a policy which would damage his own Tory party which receives huge donations from many City figures. Will his colleagues be prepared to go along with this in return for curbs on union funding to Labour? Not necessarily. We are back to the circular arguments which bedevilled the Phillips talks. Maybe a breakthrough is possible; maybe not.
UPDATE: Thursday 7.40am: Sir Hayden has just been on the Today programme, admitting that nothing will happen for six months until after Labour has a leader. He reckons it will be possible to get the parties into a room to renew discussions “in a year”.
SIr Hayden believes that state funding of political parties is the future – but admits that giving more money to politicians will be a tough sell in the current “cuts” climate. Then again, as he pointed out, his recommendation in 2007 was for a gradual transition to the new regime, taking five years. Like I warned last night; this won’t be a sudden revolution.