After its humiliating U-turn over tobacco sponsorship of Formula 1
racing, Labour has found itself caught in a public relations
In handing back F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone’s donation to the party,
Labour can at least claim to have followed Lord Nolan’s view that, even
if there has been no wrongdoing, the perception that there could have
been is enough to require action. But this is clearly
Reason suggests that if the Government had been induced into exempting
F1 racing by Ecclestone’s generosity then ministerial heads should
tumble in disgrace, but if there was no wrongdoing then returning the
money serves no purpose except to heighten suspicion.
And yet, having helped to create a political climate where appearance is
deemed more important than reality, not returning the donation would
have been equally damaging in PR terms. So the Government is damned
whatever it does.
There is no way out of this mess under the current system for funding
political parties. Much attention has been focused on the size of the
donation made by Ecclestone. But this is also a moral quagmire.
Churchill is reported to have once asked a woman whether she would sleep
with a man for pounds 1,000. The woman replied blushingly that she might
consider it. The great man then asked whether she would do so for ten
Outraged, she demanded to know what kind of a woman he thought she
Madam, he replied, we have established the principle, now we are merely
haggling over the price.
So what of donors who give more trifling sums to political parties? Is
there a magic figure above which the potential for corruption exists,
but below which all intentions must be deemed honourable?
Anyone who donates money to Labour, and who subsequently lobbies the
Government on an issue, can presumably expect a curious result from now
on. If the Government decides in your favour, you will get your money
back. If however they decide against your case, the party gets to keep
So, having seen accusations that the Government may have been influenced
to decide in favour of a donor, will we in future see accusations that
the Government deliberately took decisions to spite major donors in
order that the party should not have to give their cash back?
The Government and its standards watchdogs have tied themselves up in
knots because of their obsession with appearances. But, as any PR person
knows, tinkering with perceptions without fixing the reality of the
problem only makes things worse.