OPINION: Blair must legislate to reduce claims of sleaze

How many more 'Labour sleaze' stories will it take before Tony Blair realises just how damaging the stories about Labour Party funding are?

For a party that prides itself on PR nous, the fact that Labour accepted a £100,000 donation from a pornographer who also happens to own the Daily Express was astonishingly naive.

What did Labour think would be the reaction of the Express's bitter rivals at the Daily Mail to the revelation? Just to make matters even worse, the donation was exposed before it appeared in the party accounts - where it was due to be announced - because the donation was made days before the law changed that forced parties to reveal donations immediately. It therefore looks as if Labour had something to hide.

If that wasn't enough, the donation came as Richard Desmond's Express takeover was being considered by the DTI, run at the time by the beleaguered Stephen Byers. The icing on the cake for Labour's enemies was the fact that Desmond had hired the super-efficient ex-Labour Party general-secretary Margaret McDonagh to become Express Newspapers general manager.

Blair still hasn't learnt the lessons of the Bernie Ecclestone affair, when the Formula 1 boss gave Labour £1m and, in return, seemed to have won a delay in the banning of tobacco advertising. I will never forget Gordon Brown's reaction when Blair told him of the donation. As Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley's account of this episode in his book Servants of the People correctly reported: Brown went ballistic - and rightly so.

While Brown would prefer not to accept tainted money, Blair's solution was to press ahead with legislation to force all political parties to reveal who their donors were, thinking that it would expose the Tories. Unfortunately for Labour, the legislation was not retrospective so we will never know what dirty deals the Tories made for cash donations and how much of their money came from abroad - most of it, I expect.

Inevitably the spotlight has shone on Labour because it is they and not the Tories who are in government. The Tories can't be accused of introducing or not introducing legislation because someone had given them a bung - but Labour can. Never mind that most of sleaze stories don't stand up - mud sticks.

Labour got into this mess because they didn't want to have to rely on the unions. Despite the fact that the Tories were bankrolled by big business and that they never revealed where they got their cash, Labour always got more grief for being too reliant on trade unions.

Some people, including Charles Clarke, the Blair-appointed party chairman, think the solution to the sleaze stories is to end cash donations and allow public funding for political parties. We can assume that Blair is tempted to go down this road as he has allowed Clarke and other ministers to support the idea - though he knows the public would take a very dim view of their money being used to fund political parties.

For me, the solution to all this is to legislate to drastically cut back how much parties can spend at election time. It is the millions wasted every four years by all parties that forces them to beg for funds, even though evidence suggests the campaigns do little to change people's minds. The majority of the election war-chest cash is spent on poster ads and the easiest solution would be to ban it. Given the standard of political advertising, none of which would pass any normal test for advertising standards, that would be doing the public a great service.

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