Wednesday, 3 July 2013

State funding of politics is wrong...


Unite buying up constituency Labour Parties isn't an argument for state funding. Not a bit.

I heard Angela Eagle interrupting Andrew Lansley on Radio 4 but it wasn't this that struck me but that her solution to the corruption of the Labour Party by its Union paymasters isn't stopping them buying up the party wholesale but state funding.

That's right folks, rather than reforming party funding to prevent what has happened we should make it unnecessary by simply allowing the parties to dip into tax funds. Put simply this would represent the final severing of the link (and it is the thinnest and most fragile of links) between individual members and politics.

Instead of political parties having to seek active support from members, we will see - if Ms Eagle gets her way - party officials being little different from the other courtiers, from all those special advisors, members of executive boards, campaign organisers, advertising people and media manipulators. Instead of at least a pretence of the parties being accountable to individual members across the country, we will instead see parties accountable to no-one.

Right now British politics is pretty remote from the public - back in the 1950s there were perhaps as many as 4 million members of political parties (more if you included actively involved trade unionists, members of Conservative Clubs and so forth). Today the entire collection of parties can barely muster 500,000 - a number that continues to fall. Across whole swathes of Britain one or other of the two main parties has no significant presence - a few old activists long past their most effective and perhaps the occasional student anorak of ambitious pole-climber (although the latter now flock ever more thickly in central London).

That Unite feel able to buy up local Labour Parties is a symptom of this problem. Just as are the frequent squeals about major donors from the business community to all the parties. For a few million over several years an organisation or individual can purchase a disproportionate influence over policy-making machinery. 

But how does replacing that corruption with direct funding from taxes - a different form of corruption - improve matters? We get a political hierarchy that has no need at all to engage with anyone outside the 'Westminster bubble', the system would be closed to folk from provincial backwaters who haven't the time, cash or obsession to park themselves in London. Policy would be ever more London-centred, increasingly about the preferences and biases of a small cluster of courtiers attached like limpets to the grandees of politics. Grandees who, a few years previously, were those very same courtiers.

Perhaps, instead of robbing the taxpayer or sucking up to big paymasters, politicians might consider instead refusing such funding. And then walking the walk - asking for small donations and embracing the principle of democracy rather than the idea that votes are gathered by spending other people's money and boasting about it. Maybe the parties might turn their backs on big donations - whether from the wealthy institutions or rich people - and seek support locally.

There was a time when the Conservative Party had no minimum subscription - give us 50p and we gave a membership card. And those people who paid the little subs came out to coffee mornings, to dinners and to strawberry teas - raising the money for a local agent and an office, funding election campaigns and providing the voice of the Party. Now those people are gone or going. And they are not replaced with more of the same but with a coalition of political obsessives and the ambitious.

Old-fashioned party politics isn't dying out because of policy or because of bad government, it's dying out because the leaderships of the parties no longer care. The voluntary party, the local association, is a pain, an annoyance. Party conferences are grand affairs designed as media showpieces rather than as a gathering together of people from a mass party, from a movement. Everything is shiny, politicians spend time with journalists, lobbyists and clever folk from think-tanks. No time is given to the folk who've spent their own cash to come to conference; they're just a backdrop a little local colour rather than anything of importance.

State funding would make this worse. If it arrives the idea of the people influencing the state will have died. And let's face it, we don't pay taxes to fund political parties, do we?


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