Legislate in haste; repent at leisure. When Labour passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, 2000, it was meant to be the final word on sleaze. The law was to be zero tolerance, strict liability, and would clean up politics once and for all. No one was to escape the net. But they never expected the net to catch an entire shoal of Labour fish wriggling in disbelief.
Following Peter Hain’s departure from office, to help the police with their inquiries, there are a number of prominent Labour figures potentially in the dock. The elusive northern property developer, David Abrahams, who connived with the Labour’s former general secretary, Peter Watt to set up a network of illegal proxy donors to channel 600,000 in illegal donations to Labour politicians.
Our own Wendy Alexander’s case is with the Electoral Commission, and the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, also accepted an impermissible donation. Questions have been raised about the Glasgow-based businessman, Imran Khand, who reportedly donated £300,000 to Labour through a front organisation, the Muslim Friends of Labour.
No doubt there will be others. The mystery is why Labour politicians were so ignorant of their own law. The Electoral Commission assigned £180,000 for education programmes to ensure that party officers and elected members would be in no doubt of their obligation to obey the letter of it. Not money well spent, it seems.
But Labour politicians are incensed. Suddenly they've realised that no one is safe from this terminator statute. Politicians aren’t accountants, after all, and most of them are as uncomfortable with figures as the rest of us. There could be any number of obscure anomalies buried in the accounts of Labour politicians which they don’t know even how to look for. As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, it’s not the things you know you don’t know that cause the trouble, but the things you don’t know you don’t know.
You can sympathise - well, a little. Anyone who has ever been under investigation by the Revenue or VAT inspectors or had their expenses examined knows that accounts are very rarely glitch free. You can be incriminated by any number of minor infractions which you weren’t even aware of. And of course, for agencies like the Revenue, ignorance is not a defence.
But as fallen politician plead workload or plain incompetence, they’re being watched by an electorate whose patience is wearing very thin. Why should MPs get off because they ‘didnae ken’, when that defence doesn’t work for ordinary people? The trouble is that politicians really don’t see themselves as ordinary people There is a presumption of collective innocence - they really don’t think that the rules apply to them.
It’s always ‘other people’ - sleazy Tory politicians, corrupt businessmen, dodgy lobbyists - who are the targets of the anti-sleaze laws, not their own kind. Most become indignant at the mere suggestion that they could break the law. And if they’re found bang to rights, they attack the law itself - it was ‘badly drafted,’ ‘wrongly interpreted’, the law enforcement agencies were ‘political motivated’, ‘the other parties are just as bad...’ etc..
Why should busy politicians have to give up their careers, say their apologists, just because some underling didn’t register campaign donations on time? Or because some numpty solicited a donation for an impermissible donor and tried to cover it up? Or had set up a network of fictitious donors to disguise the scale of contribution from businessmen? As Wendy Alexander has said, there was “no intentional wrongdoing” so why should they be treated as criminals?
The Electoral Commission - a Labour creation - now bears an onerous responsibility. It has become the guardian of political probity, and holds in its hands the very future of the government. If it decides this week that other Labour figures should, like Hain, have their cases referred to the boys in blue, then the damage to Gordon Brown’s administration will be incalculable. If his Scottish leader, his UK deputy leader, a slew of senior office-bearers and others we don’t even know about are forced to resign then it would be curtains.
Mind you, Wendy Alexander’s team are now saying that even if the Electoral Commission finds against her, she will not resign. They accept that the law was breached when she accepted a £950 donation from the tax-exile businessman, Paul Green, but insist she knew nothing of it, even though she had sent a letter of thanks to his Jersey address. Her campaign team claimed that the donation had not come from Mr Green but from a UK based company, Combined Property Services. This was untrue.
But it was, we are assured, a muddle not a fiddle. Why should she be faced with resignation for a mistake she didn't make over a few quid? Well, the problem here is that the law is very tightly drawn, and the actual sum involved doesn’t really come into it. As the “regulated donee” Wendy Alexander is responsible for everything that happens in her name. And despite her defiance, even a mild censure from the Electoral Commission might be enough to end her career.
What the Electoral Commission will have to do this week - if it exonerates Ms Alexander - is explain convincingly why, when the law has been broken by the admission of the parties involved, the case should NOT be referred to the relevant authorities. In short, why the police and prosecuting authorities shouldn’t at least take a look at it. After all, the Electoral Commission is not judge and jury, but a regulator. It is supposed to refer any cases where there is a prima facia breach of the law over to the agencies equipped to assess them.
The danger here is that if the electoral commission doesn’t make a convincing case for leniency it will undermine its own credibility as well as Wendy Alexander’s. The public will lose trust in the Commission and whatever trust they still have left in politicians. Indeed, in different circumstances, you might have argued that cases like this should be handed to the justice system as a matter of course, if only to reassure the public that there is no case to answer.
Could Wendy Alexander tough it out if that happened? She won’t “walk away from her reputation” we are told. But what reputation would she have left? The Prime Minister himself said that Peter Hain had done the “honourable” thing in stepping down to clear his name. Would Wendy be able to argue that her infraction is so minor that she can remain honourably in post? The court of public opinion will have to judge that.
I wouldn’t like to be the legal eagle in the Electoral Commission who has to adjudicate on the Wendy Alexander episode - it looks like a no win situation. If she’s exonerated, a lot of people will claim a cover- up; if they call in the law, it’s probably the end of her career. Either way, the very foundations of this government are shaking - and we’ll learn in a few days whether Labour's own law is going to be Wendy’s undoing.