Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

Secretive Tory cash pouring into 2015 battlegrounds – so why isn't Labour crying foul?

The Conservatives stand accused of trying to "buy the next general election", but Labour isn't accusing the Tories of breaking any rules.

Given the extraordinary care Harriet Harman has gone to in order to highlight the funding the Tories are receiving from secretive associations, you'd think there was some of financial jiggery-pokery going on.

Her speech to a London audience sees her complain to the heavens about the Conservatives continuing to accept donations from mysterious organisations.

She's highlighted the latest figures from the Electoral Commission, which show the Tories received £372,183.09 from unincorporated associations in April, May and June this year.

The figures have revealed organisations like the United and Cecil Club, Strangers Gallery and the Chelwood Club are focusing their funding on the marginal constituencies the Conservatives believe are vital to securing an overall majority in 2015.

In the second quarter of 2014, the National Conservative Draws Society donated £202,000 to CCHQ. Watford Business Club gave £5,000 to help Tory Richard Harrington improve his vulnerable 1,425 majority. In Halifax, where Labour MP Linda Riordan is defending a 1,472 majority, the Carlton Club Political Committee donated £2,000.

Harman said these groups "bankrolling the Tories" were able to keep their identities "completely secret".

"In 27 of their key seats, more than half the money raised since 2010 has come from these secretive clubs," she pointed out.

"It's no wonder they need this shady money. In three-quarters of their most marginal seats, their membership is falling.

"We may be outspent, but we won't be out-organised or out-campaigned. They want to buy the election. We're fighting to win it."

Harman is full of fighting talk. But what she's not doing is suggesting there is anything actually certifiably wrong going on.

That's because the only reason we have the numbers about these unincorporated associations is that it was Harman's New Labour government legislated to get them released.

Its Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 introduced reporting rules for unincorporated associations supporting political activities.

Five years later, it's clear some in the Labour party suspect some donors are avoiding having to declare their political donations by channelling their funding through 'shady' organisations.

But because Labour didn't act on it until the very end of their three terms in power, Harman is prevented from demanding more transparency. All she can do is complain about it.

This is despite the fact that, as existing guidance makes clear, unincorporated associations don't have to amount to much in order to become an attractively shady alternative for donors wishing to keep their political activities quiet.

They consist of two or more individuals and can only make political contributions if they have an office in the UK and carry out their business – or other activities – mainly in the UK.

Furthermore, only those which give political contributions of over £25,000 in the course of a calendar year are obliged to declare their donations. Not exactly a very high barrier.

The most generous of these organisations are able to respond to journalistic efforts to expose their activities by shrugging their shoulders and insisting they're well within the law.

Take the United and Cecil Club, a mysterious private club based in either Berkshire or Buckinghamshire, which faced negative publicity earlier this summer when the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed it has bolstered Tory coffers by nearly £300,000 since 2010.

Tim Lord, who owns the stables where the club is registered, simply said: "We are a club, we have our objective and we comply with the law."

If Labour really want to do anything about these organisations, they should stand up and say so in their manifesto.

But doing that, of course, would lead to instant accusations from certain quarters – including this website – that they are ready to change the rules of the game purely to serve their party's own interests – thus rendering their own complaints about Tory constitutional meddling in the present parliament completely hypocritical.

Either way the parties can't win. So all they can do is play politics, which Harman is doing very forcefully today.

She's pointed out that since the 2010 general election the total amount donated to the Conservatives party by all unincorporated associations has reached £5,565,005.50.

It's a big number – but it's all within the rules, as set out by Labour in 2009. That's why Harman can complain all she likes – and isn't necessarily prepared to do anything about it.

UPDATE: The Tories have come back with a response to Harman's response. It's fairly contemptuous - they provide a bucketload of detail about exactly how much Labour is in hock to the unions, and don't even address the 'shady' funding point directly. Here's the quote from a Conservative spokesman:

It seems Labour, a party funded by union barons who pick the candidates and the leader, are spending more time trying to invent nonsense about the Conservatives than research and develop policies for the next election. If they spent less time playing politics and more creating some economic policies for the future the public might not hold Mr Miliband in such poor esteem.

No recall: How Cameron can stay on the beach as Iraq stares into the abyss

"Recall is not on the cards." With those six words the prime minister's spokesperson yesterday dismissed the sizeable chunk of MPs who think the Commons should debate the crisis in Iraq. Why, exactly, should No 10 get to decide this?

The case for recalling parliament is a strong one, best articulated by Enfield's Conservative MPs David Burrowes and Nick De Bois. Their joint letter to David Cameron argues:

"What we are witnessing in Iraq is truly shocking and requires a co-ordinated international response. The horrific persecution of minority groups in the region impose both a moral obligation and a duty to our constituents to reconvene so that the escalating crisis can be properly debated with a view to the government being able to seek guidance from and support of the House for policies aimed at ending the killing. It is vital that the House of Commons debate an appropriate response to this emergency."

Two factors, they believe, "demand the urgent attention of parliamentarians": the US' unilateral military action, and the lack of a coordinated military response. Recalls result from urgent situations. Surely, Burrowes and De Bois suggest, the situation in Iraq is sufficiently pressing.

The government is not interested. It has a mixed record on recalling parliament. In 2011 and 2012, phone-hacking scandal and the August riots were judged sufficiently grave to summon MPs back to Westminster. But then came the recall over the death of Margaret Thatcher, which baffled Speaker John Bercow. Last year saw the vote over military action in Syria – a recall Cameron must wish had never happened.

Because of the way Whitehall operates, a recall of parliament is unlikely to take place unless the event in question meets the standard of seriousness matched by previous recalls. Looking down the list, you have some fairly eye-wateringly important events. Suez in 1956; the Kuwait invasion in 1990; the 9/11 attacks; and, in 2002, 'Iraq and weapons of mass destruction'.

Tony Blair didn't want parliament to be recalled 12 years ago, despite vociferous calls from MPs. His government pointed to the Commons' standing orders, which state that the Speaker can only recall parliament when "it is represented to the Speaker by Her Majesty's ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet". So MPs acted on their own.

Graham Allen, now chair of the Commons' political and constitutional reform committee, recalls: "As we know from efforts to recall parliament before the Iraq war (which started this whole bloody story) MPs cannot recall parliament, neither can the Speaker. We only got a recall on that occasion by organising a meeting of MPs in Church House."

Twelve years on, does the rise of Isis in Iraq match up to this level of crisis? MPs on all sides of the House might feel that the humanitarian scale justifies a recall, but the civil servants advising Cameron, focused on precedent rather than politics, are unlikely to agree.

All of which leaves us asking the question: why is it the government that gets to decide all this in the first place?

The answer is this fits into the category of powers which used to be the crown's, and which has escaped the shift from authoritarian monarchy to democracy. Parliament doesn't even get to decide when it sits. Not much has changed since Charles II refused to summon parliament in the 1630s.

MPs deserve to feel frustrated. "Until we change the rules, it is only the government that has the power to initiate a recall," Allen adds. "So, the very institution (government) that we (parliament) are trying to hold to account , is perversely the only institution that can begin its own accountability!"

Even before the expenses scandal, there were moves towards changing all this. In 2007, the Ministry of Justice published a green paper which proposed a shift in the rules. "The government believes that where a majority of members of parliament request a recall, the Speaker should consider the request, including in cases where the government itself has not sought a recall," it stated. For many reformers, it looked like a change might finally be about to take place.

But nothing came of it. An inquiry launched in October 2007 was announced by parliament's modernisation committee, but it never completed its inquiry. The idea wasn't so much kicked into the long grass as quietly dropped there, out of sight while Westminster moved on.

Try raising the issue in 2014 and you don't get very far. The government isn't even sure which department is responsible for this now. It's not the MoJ. It might be the Cabinet Office. Or maybe No 10? Which just goes to show that this is not an issue anyone on Whitehall actually cares about any more.

Perhaps they should. Conor Burns, the Tory backbencher, said he had emailed the Speaker requesting a recall to debate Britain's response "to the massacre of Christians and other minorities in Iraq". Systematic beheadings of children are reportedly taking place. And in Britain, MPs are not being allowed to have their say.

Ken Clarke: Germany 'no longer a place to bomb'

Even self-confessed grumpy old men like Ken Clarke don't think the best policy towards Germany is as a "place to bomb".

It probably wasn't his most diplomatic comment. Yet there we were, with a group of Germans from the Bundestag in Berlin next door in the grand surroundings of the Foreign Office's Locarno Suite. And Clarke was bringing up the Allied strategic bombing defensive which devastated Germany in 1943, 1944 and 1945.

"This is the Federal Republic" Clarke declared, after I put it to him that the sensitivities of commemorating the First World War centenary might sit a little awkwardly with the full-on diplomatic agenda for European reform which Britain is pressuring Germany with in 2014.

"It's relationships with modern Germany we have now. For a long time the British were obsessed with the Second World War. Older British people, you'd talk to them and all they'd think about would be Germany as a place to bomb. That's not where younger people are, although I'm a grumpy old man myself."

This typically eyebrow-raising comment from the former minister without portfolio came in what turned out to be Clarke's last interview before leaving the government.

He'd just returned from Berlin on a mission to patch things over with the Germans, after David Cameron had succeeded in alienating Angela Merkel and co over his opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker.

Clarke was in demob-happy mode, as he subsequently confessed. Later that week he nipped up to his constituency to watch the Test match, while telling officials he was engaged in vital constituency business.

I was interviewing Clarke for a documentary I've been making for BBC Radio 4 on Anglo-German relations and, in particular, a very odd diplomatic venture by MPs and peers in the Parliament Choir.

I got the idea for the programme after singing in the choir myself during its joint concert in Prague's St Vitus Cathedral in 2010 with a group of Czech senators.

The reception afterwards in the Archbishop's Palace might have got expenses-minded journalists frothing at the mouth, but to me it seemed like there were genuinely valuable links being forged. This, it turns out, is what politicians mean when they talk about 'cultural exchanges'.

Yes, there are hard questions to be asked about these sorts of activities. But this was in no real sense a 'jolly'. Using music to bring two countries together - especially these two countries, who have notched up a lot of conflict in the last 100 years - can only be a good thing.

When I interviewed him in the Foreign Office, Clarke made clear these sorts of relationships built up in parliament often become extremely important if you find yourself in government.

He added: "If you're going to be a participant in British politics in a sensible way, it's a very good idea to get to know your German opposite numbers, because you'll be dealing with them quite frequently. The European Union plays a big part in British politics and always will, I hope."

That seemed to be the message the Germans were sending to the British in the backstage diplomacy surrounding this concert.

Chancellor Angela Merkel jumped at the chance to upgrade the significance of the concert when it was brought to her attention in February. She requested a parallel political programme take place, which duly led to a group of German MPs visiting Westminster for the concert and the receptions surrounding it.

Music can bring people together - even the absence of it, as Clarke pointed out in his speech to the Parliament and Bundestag Choirs shortly after my interview.

"I am not singing in the concert," he declared, beaming out at his audience. "That is the single greatest contribution I can make to good Anglo-German relationships."

The government took a back seat in this initiative. It was parliament who led the way, boosting relationships and improving understanding of what exactly motivates modern Germans' view of Europe.

That is a firm conviction that the European Union must stick together in order to ensure the continent does not destroy itself with a war yet again.

Something, surely, worth singing to the rooftops about.

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