Why fund the politically bankrupt?
State-funded political parties will do greater damage to politics than any number of dodgy donors to the Tory Party.
There are few things likely to slow the pulse quicker than a UK party political sleaze scandal. Not that the now ex-treasurer of the Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas, seemed to care. He was far too busy boasting to a couple of undercover Sunday Times journalists, posing as respectable Liechtenstein businessmen, that for just one £250,000 donation to the Conservative Party they too could meet the prime minister David Cameron. Heck, he said, they could even have dinner with him, before adding none too convincingly, it could be ‘awesome’ for their business.
And when the Sunday Times story was published at the weekend, putting an extra few ‘zzz’s into sleaze, out came Cruddas’s resignation. ‘I deeply regret any impression of impropriety arising from my bluster in that conversation’, he said before waddling off into the political sunset.
Insomniac followers of recent British political scandal have been ever so keen to remind anyone able to keep their eyes open that Cameron had sown the seeds of Cruddas’ downfall back in February 2010. Then, when still the leader of the opposition, Cameron had decided to address ‘an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long’. The issue in question was ‘lobbying’. ‘We all know how it works’, Cameron continued, ‘the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire… I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics.’ So, when it emerged that Cruddas had been promising to grant businessmen access to Cameron’s ear, Cameron had little choice but to condemn him.
Yet the reason why the fall of Cruddas is so soul-crushingly tedious is that the tale is so familiar. In fact, ever since New Labour’s post-cash-for-questions 1997 election manifesto made a centrepiece of the claim to ‘clean up politics’ and ‘reform party funding to end sleaze’, sleazy funding scandals have never been far from the front pages. In fact, it took just a few months in government for New Labour to find itself accused of accepting a £1million donation from then Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone in return for relaxing a ban on tobacco advertising in motor sport. Since then, we’ve had the 2006 cash-for-honours scandal, the 2009 cash-for-amendments scandal involving a motley crew of Lords, and the cash-for-something-else-nefarious scandal of early 2010 in which Labour ministers Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt were filmed offering to help a lobbying firm in return for a bit of wonga.
And yet despite, or rather because of, the ever-lengthening catalogue of petty, sleazy intrigue, the political class, as Cameron’s 2010 comments indicate, continues to make combating sleaze a primary objective. What its members do not seem to have worked out yet, is that the focus on sleaze, the obsession with appearing to be clean, or ‘purer than pure’ as Blair once put it, has not only prompted the media to go eagerly fishing for any dirt, it has also rendered politicians permanently suspect. Just because there is no evidence of scandal, it doesn’t mean that something scandalous isn’t happening, runs the logic. This is why the official answer to sleaze, transparency, has become a crusade that brooks no room for private or informal affairs. Every contact a politician has, regardless of how unofficial it is, is to be scrutinised; every conversation, regardless of how private it is, is to be a matter of public record. This at least was the conclusion of one broadsheet editorial: ‘The way to avoid [the Cruddas affair] in future is for Mr Cameron to fulfil his pledge to be as open and transparent as possible. That would mean all of the prime minister’s contacts with people outside government being logged and published. Some would argue that this would impose unacceptable inroads into a prime minister’s privacy, but perhaps that is a price that has to be paid.’
While the sleaze-busters continue to obsess about who is talking to who off-record, or who is giving what to which party, there is another ostensibly simpler problem here: political parties are flat broke. This is why Cruddas was promising businessmen a rather overpriced meat and two veg with Cameron; this is why New Labour’s leading lights became motorracing fans in 1997; and this is also why, since it was established in 1999, political parties have been busy claiming de facto state funding. Yes, that’s right, state funding. This source of public cash, known as short money, is available annually to any opposition party with either two seats, or one seat and more than 150,000 votes. So, for example, in 2009/10, Cameron’s Tories took £4million in taxpayers’ readies; and in 2010/11, Ed Miliband’s Labour took £4.6million.
These sums, though significant, are still insufficient. Labour is reportedly £10million in debt, and the Tories need something in the region of £12million each year just to break even. So on top of ‘short money’, they need a lot more, which is why wealthy donors are so keenly sought by the Cruddases of this world.
For those who see a source of corruption where others might see support, a solution to the so-called problem of party funding has now reared its de-politicising head: increased state funding. Proposed last autumn, for instance, by Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the independent committee on standards in public life, this could involve capping individual donations at £10,000 and increasing public funding to roughly £3 per taxpayer. In light of Cruddas’ faux pas, Kelly’s proposal has become flavour of the month among some liberal commentators. The New Statesman’s senior political editor, Medhi Hasan, asked, ‘Would you be willing to fork out 50p a year to help clean up British politics? I don’t know about you but I would.’ ‘That is the minuscule charge to us’, agreed the Independent’s Mary Ann Sieghart, ‘of preventing the disgusting practices that now contaminate our politics’.
All of this high-sounding blather about state-funded political parties rests on a particularly dangerous premise, namely, that there is something suspicious about financially supporting a political party. Sieghart may call it ‘contamination’, but the act of giving money to a particular political party because it expresses and articulates your interests actually has another name, too. It’s called politics. After all, when the mid-twentieth-century Tory Party could call upon nearly three million paying members, no one called it contaminated. And when the Labour Party likewise called upon around one million paid-up supporters, plus the multi-million memberships of the trade union movement, no one called for the state to clean up its funding. And that’s because the act of giving money to the party that best expresses a person’s interests was grasped as the political act it was.
And here we come to the nub of the issue. Today’s parties do not have millions of members. In fact, they barely have 250,000 each. Thoroughly deracinated, they lack the social constituencies which once lent them their reasons to exist. As ex-Tory prime minister John Major put it: ‘All the party machines are moribund, near-bankrupt, unrepresentative and ill-equipped to enthuse the electorate.’ And vicious circle that it is, with little political reason for people to support either the Tories or Labour, mere husks of the mass movements that they once were, anyone that does pledge a significant sum towards one of the parties is only deemed to be doing so for suspect reasons.
But state funding doesn’t solve the problem of profoundly unpopular political parties; it exacerbates it. It removes from political parties the need to actually solicit support of those they still nominally represent and, in doing so, it prepares the way for no one but technocrats and bean-counters. The financial bankruptcy, and its product, the desperate cosying up to businessmen, is merely a sign of a deeper malaise: the political bankruptcy of British political parties. The question ought not to be how to save them, but why?
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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