No party has a divine right to exist

The state funding of parties would prop up the exhausted status quo and erect a barrier to political experimentation.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

With the storm over MPs’ expenses showing little sign of abating, a variety of ideas has been put forward for the Big Reform that will ‘clean up politics’.

Today, for example, prime minister Gordon Brown has suggested a statutory code of conduct for those in public institutions – not just parliament but every public body, including the National Health Service and the BBC. Last week, the big issue seemed to be changing the voting system, with reluctant Labour leadership candidate Alan Johnson pushing the notion of a more ‘proportional’ system, with the immediately mystifying name ‘AV plus’. Others have demanded fewer MPs, an elected House of Lords, and a written constitution.

But the (latest) golden boy of New Labour, James Purnell, thinks this is all missing a trick. The relatively youthful secretary of state for work and pensions wrote in the Guardian on Friday: ‘A debate on constitutional reform alone would ignore the elephant in the room – money. Without recognition that in our society and in our politics money buys power and dictates influence, any talk of “power to the people” will be meaningless.’ (1)

Purnell believes that we need to reform the funding of parties to prevent policies being distorted by the filthy lucre: ‘Whenever politics comes into contact with big money the effect is too often negative: we see it in the expenses scandal, in questions about the motives behind large donations to political parties, in elections where the size of your war chest counts more than the value of your ideas.’

Purnell wants the big political parties to sign up to reforms along the lines suggested by Sir Hayden Philips in his review of party funding published in 2007 (2). Essentially, political parties would agree to limits on both the amount they can spend and on the size of donations they can accept, with tough new rules enforced by a beefed-up Electoral Commission. In return, the parties could look forward to increased public funding – that is, state funding – to make up for the loss of income from other sources. Philips wrote: ‘The price of a fairer, more stable system of party political financing may be some increase in public funding… [this] should be linked to a recognised measure, or measures, of popular support, and should encourage greater democratic engagement.’

For the major political parties, it makes sense to call a ceasefire in their electoral expenditure war of attrition that continues to threaten their future existence. Just as the level of grassroots support for the parties has fallen, the cost of running election campaigns has shot up. As these figures from the 2005 UK General Election show, while expenditure is on nothing like the scale of US elections, getting into government (or not) is still a pretty damn expensive business:


UK General Election expenditure by party, 2005
source: Electoral Commission (3)

But state funding would be an entirely conservative move. Philips suggests that funding would be provided on the basis of votes previously cast. For example, he suggests that parties would receive 50 pence for each vote cast in a Westminster election, plus 25 pence for each vote case in the elections to the Scottish and Welsh assemblies and the European Parliament.

On top of this, there would be a matched funding scheme, where a pledge of support of £5 would be matched, up to an agreed limit, by an equal donation from the state. Philips argues that this funding would only be available to parties standing across wide geographical areas (so no local candidates or independents), and on a broad range of issues (so no single-issue parties). And there will be no money at all if your party can’t get at least two seats at Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Strasbourg.

In other words, state funding would be there to prop up the status quo, effectively creating a publicly funded barrier to new political movements or politicians. Yet if the parties themselves are pawning the family silver to keep going, they have been bankrupt of ideas for a long time. Ultimately, no one prepared to take the time to vote in an election believes, with the current miserable choice on offer, that his or her participation in the democratic process will change anything of substance.

Philips, Purnell, et al believe that their new system would encourage participation by getting more people to part with cash. Yet the proposal to match funding reminds me of nothing so much as a recent visit to a museum in York. UK charities are now entitled to claim tax back on donations made by UK taxpayers, a scheme called Gift Aid. At the entrance to the museum, I was told that instead of buying a ticket, I could in effect make a donation to the same amount and I’d get free admission, allowing the institution to claim an extra 28 per cent from the government. I’m always happy to help, but I’m no more an active supporter of the Jorvik Viking Centre than I was before I paid the admission money – I’m still just a paying punter. Is this what the supporters of state funding mean by ‘engagement’?

State funding of parties would make politicians even more like civil servants than they already are – dull, bureaucratic, cautious – while denigrating what democratic debate and engagement are really all about.

As Philips notes in his review, 50 years ago, one in 11 of the electorate was a member of a political party; today that ratio is just one in 88. We are increasingly disenchanted with what mainstream politics has to offer. Contrary to the belief of James Purnell, the political parties we have today have no divine right to exist. If they cannot persuade enough of us to support them, not just with cash but also by actually arguing for them, then they deserve to die. The march to a new kind of politics can only begin by trampling on their rotting corpses.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

(1) It’s all about the money, Guardian, 29 May 2009

(2) Strengthening Democracy: Fair and Sustainable Funding of Political Parties, March 2007

(3) General election campaign spending published, Electoral Commission, 30 November 2005

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Topics Politics UK