Political Parties and Elections Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:19 pm on 20th October 2008.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs 6:19 pm, 20th October 2008

I have been rather disturbed by how inward-looking this debate has been so far. We appear to be talking among ourselves and completely ignoring the view that people outside have of democratic politics, which we create by our actions and through this sort of debate. Outside the House, there is a crisis of confidence in our democracy, and it is just as profound as the crisis of confidence in the financial markets. Both issues are ultimately about trust—about whether one party trusts what another sells it in the market, or whether individual voters and electors trust anything that politicians say about their motives and what they really think.

One of those crises would be bad enough, but the combination of the two—the crisis of confidence in democracy and the economic crisis—gives me a sense of foreboding, and we should take the issue more seriously than we have so far in this debate. We need to act as decisively to restore confidence in our democracy as we have to restore confidence in our banks. If we do not, we will open the door to a situation in which populist extremists can exploit the economic situation while declaring that conventional, democratic politics has failed. That is what happened in the 1930s, and we must do everything we can to ensure that it does not happen again.

The problem with party funding scandals is their cumulative effect on how people see politics. In a way, the details are not important. As we have seen here tonight, there is a tendency for a kind of card game to be played in how we debate things: one party plays Michael Brown, another plays Lord Ashcroft; one plays the Midlands Industrial Council, another plays the trade union card. We could talk about the £1 million donors to the Labour party, Bernie Ecclestone or David Abrahams, but none of them is the real point. The short-term advantages to any of us of having an opportunity to pin something discreditable on a political opponent are massively outweighed by the damage done to democracy itself by a constant message that politics is not about values and ideas but about buying power and access, and that politics has nothing to offer except to rich donors or powerful interest groups.

All that is entirely exacerbated by the rise of nationally funded and nationally controlled modern campaigning techniques: the direct mail, the phone banks, the mass texting, the e-mailing, the push polling and so on. All that gives people outside this place the impression that politics is now a matter of mass manipulation, not of mass participation.

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