Yes, it’s that time of the year again folks, and there’s another scandal about the nature of politics hitting the front pages. This time, it’s party funding, that old egg.

Conservative Party Co-Treasurer, Peter Cruddas, has quit after allegations that he was selling “premier league”  access to the party leader, David Cameron, for the princely sum of £250,000.

It’s not like we couldn’t expect this. Back in November 2011, the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned “action should be taken now to end the big donor culture before another scandal does further damage”. Warning well heeded Cameron…

I was pleased by the Committee – the Chair, Sir Christopher Kelly, advocated the state funding of political parties to the tune of £23 million by the public purse, and limiting donations to £10,000 a pop, thus, hopefully, breaking the link between donation size and influence over policy-making. Like certain exemptions for certain sports on advertising cigarettes, shortly after donations to the ruling (Labour) party by a Mr. Ecclestone. Wonder which sport. Or Honours, if you care to remember back that far.

Time for the Spineless Liberal to fix the world again.

Dominc Lawson’s piece in the Independent yesterday was what sparked me to weigh in on the topic. He makes some very odd points…

Much of his condemnation of state funding for political parties seems to be that he doesn’t want to fund the BNP.

This is one of those old arguments I can’t stand – the “I’m all for democracy, except for parties I disagree with” one. If we accept we live in a democracy, then we have to accept all the parties within that democracy. We have to accept that some people want to vote BNP (fools, in my opinion, but then they probably think the same about me). We can’t just deny the right of some parties to exist and receive equal treatment because we find them morally disconcerting. Frankly, if we did, and I got to choose, the Tories and Labour would both blink out of existence at a stroke of my pen. That’s why I don’t get to choose.

To be perfectly honest, I’m heavily disappointed by Lawson – he seems to be trying to sensationalise the issue by saying “you’ll fund the BNP!” That’s not right.

Perhaps its best if I start by detailing my preferred system?

1) Political parties receive a set amount (say, £2-3) per vote received at the last election, from the public coffers.

2) Parties which received under a specific limit (say, 3-5%) and new parties, aren’t bound by these rules and can receive as much as they can get.

We would still allow donations – it’s important for those who wish to give to be able to, and popular parties can benefit in this way. We’d allow a personal donation cap (perhaps around £10,000 per annum, as the committee recommends, rather than Cameron’s idea of £50,000). The committee also recommended tax relief for donations up to £500, in order to encourage smaller donors. I would also exempt things like purchasing advertising from this cap, as those are overt – donation is more secretive, which is exactly the issue we’re trying to confront.

This would mean several things

1) Political parties would actually have to bother to fight in safe seats – if every vote, anywhere, gets you funding, then you should fight for every vote. Votes mean prizes, I mean, funding 😀

2) Votes don’t get wasted – under our present system, if a voter wants to vote for a minor party in a safe seat, there’s little point. However, under the proposed system, the voter has a reason – to give a little extra funding to their party of choice. Especially useful for those who can’t afford to actually donate.

3) Parties will have to reconnect with voters. There is often the accusation that it would lead to parties getting complacent (Douglas Carswell makes it here), if they’re spoon fed by the state. And that’s true, if they kept getting the same amount. Making it contingent on your electoral share forces you to keep fighting for votes, and thus connecting with voters.

4) You’ll still have to chase smaller donors and their votes and wallets. If we put a suitably low cap on donations (Say, £15,000?) then larger donors won’t have an especially strong voice, to compare with the average donor. No more million pound donations means no more Leaders Groups.

Now to answer the BNP ‘question’. If the BNP

Besides, you’re not funding parties. You’re funding democracy.

Either a) your money isn’t going to the BNP, it’s someone else’s money or b) no one’s money goes to any party but to a fund to keep the nature of democracy alive. If we believe in that, we must allow the BNP to benefit as well.

But would they? Don’t forget, if parties get funding based on votes, minor parties could also be hurt – no longer is the BNP a fringe protest vote, but a vote to actually support them. While this may draw other minor parties more supporters, glad to finally influence things, it may also scare off some voters, who realise what a vote for the BNP will actually mean…

It may also help to bring the BNP further into the mainstream – they’d have to appeal to a wider range of voters, in order to get this funding.

It would also mean that parties would have to connect to their voters. They’d have to get out on the streets and not only convince voters that they deserve their vote, but that they deserve to be funded. I can only see this increasing campaigning.

We need more campaigning. This table from “Funding Political Parties in Great Britain: a Pathway to Reform” by Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Stephen Crone (2010: p.9) demonstrates that Labour and the Conservatives spend far more on staffing (63% and 56%) than on actual campaigning (~12% each). The Greens are the same (56% – 24%). The Liberal Democrats fare better (around a third for each) but still not enough.

If political parties were forced to compete for funding in their voter share, perhaps they’d be more tempted to get out on the streets and do some real campaigning for once, in all weathers? (Focus deliverers UNITE!)










Lawson’s other point that concerns me is this

Yet here, too, there was a degree of openness: such knighthoods and peerages were often gazetted as being for “Political Services”. Everyone knew exactly what that meant. That might seem a dodgy way to become honoured. But look at it this way. If you think it is a good thing for taxpayers to fund the vast amount of the spending of political parties, that implies that the provision of such money is a public good. So, if it is a public good, why would it be perverse to give honours to those saving the public from coughing up all the money themselves (any more than it is perverse to give honours to those who support the arts, for example)? But if it isn’t a public good, why should taxpayers be required to be charged a penny for such activities?

I’ve answered this – funding a party isn’t a public good, and buying influence certainly isn’t. This isn’t about keeping a particular party afloat, which is the nature of donations. This is about making our system more democratic. That is a public good, and something the public should support.
Merely telling political parties that they need to go out and raise more money isn’t going to fix anything – the problem here is twofold
1) If we have a limit but no funding, then parties with donors willing to pay £10,000 will benefit the most. Parties with poorer core demographics will have to work harder to get the same funding.
            a) You’d end up with manifestos that target the wealthiest, not those likeliest to vote or the largest demographics, but the ones who will still pay up.
2) Parties would spend all their time fundraising, not actually campaigning, listening to voters, and connecting with the public.
Our system is broken. The present system of funding is far too open to influence and corruption. The only way to fix this is to introduce a cap on donations. The only way to not break our political system while doing this is to subsidise political parties. This would make the system fairer, more democratic and more accountable.
Perhaps this is not the time to do it. Perhaps this is the best time. It is hard to tell tax-payers today that they need to give our politicians more money.
The committee acknowledged this, claiming it “would not recommend public subsidy to political parties if we thought there was an alternative.” There isn’t.  This is the only way forward, and it’s time politicians woke up to this fact, shook off their vested interests and took time to reconnect with the voters. Maybe a cash prize will convince them it’s worth the effort.