For the first time, Labour is seen as sleazier than the Conservatives, according to an opinion pool. Nick Morrison looks at how the Government's reputation has been tarnished.

WHEN Tony Blair came to power, he promised his Government would be "whiter than white", and, after the sleaze-ridden last days of the Conservative Government, it was a pledge which struck a chord. Beset by scandals from cash-for-questions to ministers cheating on their wives, John Major was thrown out of office by an electorate as much tired of political shenanigans, as they were keen to embrace the values of New Labour.

Five years on, and it is a different story. Now, it is Labour which has been tarred with the brush of scandal, as questions continue to be asked over the help Tony Blair provided to party donor Lakshmi Mittal, to secure a lucrative contract from the Romanian government. And it comes amid renewed accusations that the Government is more style than substance, with the resignations of spin doctors Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith last week after an extraordinary public feud.

Tony Blair may have dismissed the Mittal affair as "Garbagegate", but the mud does appear to be sticking. A poll at the weekend suggested Labour was now regarded as substantially more sleazy than the Tories, and this latest smear cannot be treated lightly, according to Professor Robert Williams, professor of politics at Durham University.

"I think it is important in two senses. It is important in itself, in that it appears to be the case that there was an exchange of favours between a party donor and the Government using its muscle to try and get some business overseas," he says.

"And it is also important in a more symbolic sense, in that the prime minister who came to office promising to be purer than pure, is trying to rubbish and discredit those who are trying to bring him to account for his conduct. This 'Garbagegate' was a most unfortunate term and does him no credit at all."

The Mittal affair also raises the issue of party funding, says Prof Williams, whose research in this area has been published in his book, Party Finance and Political Corruption.

"It is a fact that the Conservative party, for 20 years, consistently refused, on principle, to disclose who gave them money and for what," he says. "You can only speculate that there were deals done and favours done. We assumed that was going on, but we didn't actually know it.

"When Labour came to power, one of the first things they did was refer the issue of party funding to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which led to legislation reforming party funding.

"We now know who gives what to whom, which we didn't know before. But what Mr Blair and his friends don't seem to have grasped is that, just because they have made it transparent, it doesn't mean we should be grateful to him for taking money from businessmen and doing them favours. It requires a higher standard, rather than a lower standard.

"Labour said it wouldn't take any lessons from the Conservatives on integrity, but that is a cheap, party point. It is certainly true that there was much more of this sort of stuff in the last Conservative Government, but that is not the point."

Comparing his Government's record to his predecessor's also shows Tony Blair's insecurity, despite a massive parliamentary majority and an opposition in disarray, says Prof Williams. And this is tied in with the Government's desperation to be on friendly terms with successful businessmen.

"The Labour Party has, for decades, been seen as antagonistic to business, but Tony Blair, in his pitch to the middle ground, has been demonstrating that Labour is the party of business, and he does seem to be terribly impressed by businessmen.

"He believes in the market and competition, and it makes it rather difficult when the consequences of this particular scandal, and I think it is a scandal, include unemployment or redundancy for Welsh steelworkers, who are traditionally Labour's natural supporters. He is sacrificing his own hard-core supporters on the altar of international business."

A lack of hard information on how political parties were funded in the past, makes it difficult to compare the records of Conservative and Labour governments, but has contributed towards a public disillusionment over politics.

"It is very hard to judge, but my intuition is that the Conservatives were more sleazy than Labour, but it is very hard to prove that," says Prof Williams. "But I believe politicians haven't quite got the message - there is a widespread public distrust of politicians and a feeling that they are self-serving and they will lie if necessary.

"Being accountable means more than just declaring your income or donations, it means standing up and answering questions about what follows from that."

But, while Labour may have fallen from its pedestal, it is too early to say if its newfound reputation for sleaze will have any long-term effect, he says.

"Damage is always relative to the strength of the opposition. I don't think Blair's worst enemy would say he was personally corrupt, quite the contrary, because he is overtly Christian and honest.

"But this is about party finance, and when businessmen give large sums of money to political parties, people are entitled to ask what they are getting in exchange, and if they say nothing, then people don't believe that."

He says the Mittal affair may be more serious than the last big donation scandal to hit Labour, when it was eventually forced to hand a £1m gift back to Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, amid suggestions it had influenced the Government's attitude on tobacco advertising.

But the extent of the damage may depend on whether newspapers are prepared to devote the resources to investigating the scandal still further, and keep it on the front pages, he says.

"I would be surprised if there aren't quite a few Labour MPs who are very uneasy about what is happening, and I think this one may develop."

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