Sunday, 30 October 2011

They say Caesar was ambitious...but did the state fund his party?

It has been a bad week for my love of politics and all who sail in her. Not for the usual, “what on earth are they on about now” stuff but for two other reasons:

  1. A “draft” report proposes the state funding of political parties
  2. I went to the cinema - with anticipation – to watch “Ides of March”

The first of these two things makes me angry and the second depressed. And it all comes back to the perennial cynicism about the process of politics – the seeming inevitability that everyone is there for personal advancement, that no one is honourable and that only the state can be relied on.

The cash, worth up to £100 million over a five-year parliament, would be used to compensate parties for a loss of income as a result of a £50,000 cap on individual donations, it was reportedly proposed.

The Conservatives are expected to lose out from the cap, arguing that it will result in the party losing up to a third of its income from donors.

But the Liberal Democrats have much to gain from the new arrangements as they have less independent income than the other two parties.

Note here the automatic attention to winners and losers under such a system. There isn’t any discussion as to whether the taxpayer should be paying for the running of political parties. Which brings us to the justification for the state taking over – that political parties can be bought and sold by wealthy individuals.  After all, the Labour Party isn’t really any bigger than, say, Manchester City or Chelsea and very rich folk bought them up!

This rather brings me to the “Ides of March” (in which Caesar is corrupted and compromised rather than simply stabbed a few times) and the manner of American politics. We are used to the characterisation of American politics as dominated by the money – much larger sums than we see in Britain – and take the cynicism of films like “Ides of March” as given even when we don’t fully understand the actual processes of Yankee politics.

The problem is that the bureaucrats employed by the political elite to look at the funding of the political elite are not going to ask the big question. So I will:

In a country where we elect an individual to represent us (we call that person an MP, in the USA it’s a congressman, senator or president) why is it felt necessary to institutionalise party politics?

That is what state funding brings you – a rigid, unchanging and sterile system controlled by faceless party apparatchiks. Nobody is likely to propose a system whereby – for example – national, party-focused campaigns are forbidden during election times and all the money is constrained within the limits set by the Electoral Commission for spending in a local constituency.

Such an approach has two advantages – firstly the campaign is conducted locally rather than on the back of a sloganised, sound bite ridden, national campaign; and secondly the possibility for party capture by the wealthy is reduced since campaigning is affordable locally. However, this rather hobbles the central party machines – which explains why it’s never proposed by those given their paid job by the political elite.

It seems depressingly inevitable that the party bosses will get their state funding:

Near the top of the tottering pile in the government's too-difficult tray lurks the question of paying for politics. From time to time another committee is sent off, like Noah's dove, to search for a solution that will be both acceptable to the public and reasonably equitable to the parties. In the next few weeks the latest attempt at an answer will be revealed. As we report today, some degree of state funding will be part of the mix. 

And as a result the corrupting Westminster bubble will no longer be a force of nature but will be an institution of the state.


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