Monday, 13 September 2010

Fixing the system: political parties, funding and privilege.


As you will know, dear readers, I have a slightly jaundiced view of the manner in which political parties are obtaining a constitutional position that extends beyond their established role as private organisations established for the purpose of promoting a particular cause.

We no longer need to clump together in class-based groups so as to protect our interests – we’re all pretty much middle class with much the same interests as each other. And in the main this interest involves keeping the Government and its agents out of our lives, getting on with raising our families, enjoying the house & garden on which we’ve spent all the cash the government leaves us after tax and not bothering our neighbours overmuch with our individual problems.

In truth we don’t need political parties. We don’t need to spend taxpayers’ money on sustaining the 1% of the adult population who join those parties. And we don’t need special protections or status in law for such bodies. If people like me want to join them that’s our business and we should not expect any privileged status or treatment for the organisation just because they are engaged in politics.

In the past few days, the ‘Committee on Standards in Public Life’ began a consultation on the funding of political parties – you can go play with this consultation on-line here. Now, although I care deeply about the manner of party funding, I am just as concerned about the assumptions being made by the Committee in framing the terms of their consultation.

Political parties are an essential part of the sound operation of the democratic process. They offer individuals a way to participate directly in our democracy and are the means by which voters choose between alternative policies and candidates at elections. Through government and effective opposition, political parties shape public policy. If political parties are to operate effectively it is essential that they are adequately and appropriately funded but it is also important that the means by which this funding is provided commands public confidence.

This implies a privileged position for political parties within our constitution – they are “essential”, they offer individuals “a way to participate” and are the means of choosing between “alternative policies”. And because of this particular, gatekeeper role Government should concern itself with the funding of political parties.

I don’t agree. I do not accept that political parties have any special position of importance and should be given any special advantage over other organisations – however those other organisations are constituted. The fact that the Labour Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the trade union movement means that I will never vote for it. But if those wealthy, protectionist organisations choose to fund a political party, that is their business – at least until the Government gives political parties a special position within our constitution. Sadly, the previous Labour government gave just such a privileged position to political parties and in doing so granted an advantage to the larger parties despite their rapidly declining membership. Today less than 1% of the population are members of political parties – and that includes all the funny little left-wing and right-wing grouplets that come and go like mayflies.

Finally, rather than focusing on income – on where a political party gets its cash – we should instead look at spending, at what the party spends its cash on doing. I have long argued that election spending should be exclusively at the constituency level – all national campaign funding should be banned and a reasonable limit on local spending used. That would get away from the “business/unions/rich foreigners are buying the election” arguments and would make independent and local candidates far more valuable and likely.

But this won’t happen now, will it!


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