Nick Clegg should say no to any link between state funding and boundary changes

It’s August, so I’m not going to take too seriously kite-flying suggestions by Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph that Nick Clegg might consider rescinding his threat that the Lib Dems will vote against boundary changes (following the Tories’ decision to break the Coalition Agreement over Lords reform) in return for a deal on party funding which would include state aid for political parties:

Here’s how it was presented to me: over the next year or so Mr Clegg will find a way to back the boundary review when it comes up for a vote in the Commons. In exchange, Mr Cameron will agree to support some form of state funding for political parties. His side won’t like it, but it will be presented as Mr Clegg’s price for securing a review that gives the Tories more seats. And some Tories, including Mr Cameron, may be secretly delighted to reduce their reliance on donors who are never slow to voice their frustrations when things go wrong. With party memberships plummeting and grassroots cash support drying up, state funding is the gleam in the eye of most politicians. Keep an eye on this one.

But just on the off-chance this is being considered, let’s be clear of the reasons why Nick Clegg’s answer should be a resounding NO to any link between state funding and boundary changes:

    1) Having explicitly said the Lib Dems will veto boundary reforms, there is no way Nick can march back down the hill for anything less than the Lords reforms promised by both Lib Dems and Tories in the Coalition Agreement;

    2) It is even more inconceivable that Nick could be seen to trade Lords reform — with which the vast majority of the public agrees, albeit some way down their list of everyday concerns — for taxpayer-funding of political parties, perhaps the least austerity-friendly policy among voters that could be imagined;

    3) Nakedly linking two measures which have little to do with the wishes of the voters, and everything to do with the political needs of the two Coalition parties, will appear (and be) grubby.

There are legitimate arguments in favour of the boundary changes — most obviously creating more equal-sized constituencies so that voters’ individual ballots count more equally — although there were very understandable concerns over the Boundary Commission’s hastily arbitrary divvying up of communities to make their numbers add up.

And I accept there are arguments that can be made in favour of further state-funding of political parties — but I don’t agree with them. As I stated back in March when putting forward 6 essential steps to help clean up the reputation of British politics:

No additional state funding
In some senses, the debate over ‘state funding’ misses the point: it already exists. Opposition political parties have benefited form so-called ‘Short Money’, taxpayers’ money spent on political advisors; party election broadcasts are freely given air-time; there’s freepost election literature distributed during election times. This is rightly, in my view, seen as the ‘price of democracy’, and is a legitimate cost of ensuring those standing for election can communicate to voters. But the emphasis must now be on restricting spending by parties already subsidised by the taxpayer, not on increasing the supply of public money still further at a time of national austerity.

Update (14 Aug): I’ve posted a follow-up post to this – There’s zero chance of Clegg cutting any boundary deal with Tories over party funding

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Richard Dean 13th Aug '12 - 7:30pm

    Tit-for-tat damage, and deals like this, do not seem attractive to me, and I wonder what voters think? If boundary changes are right for the country, they should be supported, end of story. Deals seem to be optimizations in win-lose scenarios – wouldn’t it be better to argue matters rationally and find the win-win scenarios instead?.

  • I certainly do not think the public would support more party funding coming from the public purse.

    I do however believe that party funding needs reforms.

    The Tory party is full of either ex-bankers or their spouses currently work within the banking industry, which clearly prevents them being impartial when it comes to banking reforms and lining the Tory Coffers with big donations from the city.

    I am sure there would be a “limited” amount of funding that the public would support, in the run up to an election, in the form of
    Free party political broadcasting on the BBC for all parties,
    Free postage for campaign Literature as long as it from Royal Mail
    Free stationary for campaign literature as long as ALL parties are using the “same” British owned company.

    Further donations should have “caps” on all donations from either private or corporate sources.

    And finally there could possibly be an option on the ballot paper for the voter to make for example a £2 donation to the party that they have voted for, creating possible revenue for all parties from all the electorate rather than just relying on donations from party members.

  • “Nakedly linking two measures which have little to do with the wishes of the voters, and everything to do with the political needs of the two Coalition parties, will appear (and be) grubby.”

    Well, quite. Party A agreeing to electoral changes that will benefit Party B, in return for Party B actually voting through state funding for Party A? It’s an outrageous idea.

  • Peter Watson 13th Aug '12 - 11:20pm

    @Colin Green
    “Nick Clegg’s words were that he was ‘pushing the pause button’ on the boundary review, not vetoing it.”
    Rightly or wrongly, and whether or not consistent with previous pronouncements, Clegg’s statement on Lords Reform and other recent public comments by Clegg and senior Lib Dems make a clear explicit link between Lords reform and the boundary review, both in principle and within the terms of the coalition agreement.
    I think that voting for boundary reform now as part of a deal on any issue other than Lords reform would contradict everything that the leadership has said recently.

  • Richard Dean 13th Aug '12 - 11:39pm

    Every dirty deal is another weapon that oppomnets can use in 2015.

  • Paul in Twickenham 13th Aug '12 - 11:48pm

    You will recall Benedict Brogan’s “exclusive” during the 2010 election campaign in which he ran a front page headline in 5 inch high text in which he crassly attempted to smear Clegg by imputing that he was taking bribes from businessmen. Oh, of course he didn’t use those words but the reader was clearly intended to draw that conclusion :

    Frankly I find it incredible that you would even give Brogan the oxygen of publicity by repeating this nonsense here.

  • Surely, the point is that the majority of British people don’t like political parties – generally they would rather they didn’t exist – so of course they will believe state funding should not happen, they would rater donors were not involved etc. So, as fans of political parties dominate this forum, what do we do to persuade them of the desirability of such organisations, and the need for clear and unbiased funding for their activities?

  • Elliot Bidgood 14th Aug '12 - 12:12am

    Hasn’t the LD party been authorised to go ahead with selections on the current lines now, to show that Clegg is digging in on the issue? And therefore, won’t it throw 2015 LD efforts into disarray and further anger party activists if Clegg’s “pause button” on boundaries becomes a u-turn?

  • What needs to be made more clear to the British public, and to many politicos too, is that the reform of our political system and the democratising of our governance has a whole host of elements which, by and large, need to be progressed in a particular order. Which is why ‘pressing the pause button’ means pausing progress on every element. With only a few exceptions, you cannot progress any element out of order, – rather like cooking the dinner, get it in the wrong order and its a pigs dinner.

  • Spot-on Stephen. (Extending) state funding of political parties is a bad idea in principle, but especially unwise in this context and at this time. As you say, it would be hard to imagine a policy less suited to times of austerity, and more likely to repel voters (who have probably rarely held politicians in lower esteem). And linking this with boundary changes as a blatant trade between the Tories and Lib Dems would only further sully the whole concept of coalition, with which the public already seems thoroughly disenchanted.

    And whereas other Lib Dem priorities in the constitutional sphere merely leave most voters bemused, this is an idea that would arouse outright hostility. So I hope you’re right that there’s no chance the party will go for this. Given the scale of the likely Tory opposition, it must be doubtful Cameron could deliver it anyway.

  • And to those who say ‘democracy has to be paid for’, I simply do not believe a healthy democracy requires anything like the level of spending all the party establishments seem to think is necessary. Indeed much of the activity this funds is actually corrosive of a decent political culture (when it isn’t simply futile).

    Moreover, the reliance on big corporate backers, trade unions and the taxpayer to fund party-political activity – mirrored as it has been by the collapse in party membership and grassroots organisation – is itself a telling indictment of how far removed politicians of all stripes have become from the public they claim to represent. I hardly think the way to repair this is to raid the voters’ (or, increasingly, non-voters’) pockets to preserve the current dysfunctional system.

    No: If parties can’t attract enough support to fund their activities they don’t deserve to exist. Simple as that.

  • Why do I suspect the “offer” of a state funding for political parties will turn out to be an offer rather than a reality, as happened with AV and Lords reform.

    Yes, state funding is needed, both to help under-funded parties and to reduce the dependence of others on certain donors. But surely the route has to be by the electorate being made aware of the damage done to democracy by the present arangements, not by a tawdry deal that seems to buy us off in support for Tory-aiding boundary changes.

    If there is to be a linking of the two (and perhaps Lords reform) it has to be in the context of initiatives to improve democracy in the UK. In this instance “improve” means a democracy that functions better in the interests of the people of the UK rather than of one political party or alliance.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Aug '12 - 4:34pm

    Underlying this is the way we have seen a concerted campaign against democracy in recent years. It’s disguised as an anti-establishment “aren’t politicians bad?” thing, but underneath what it does – and I believe at least some of it does this deliberately – is build up the political right at the expense of the political left. The political left relies on mass membership parties to challenge the power of wealth on the political right, so put people off getting involved in politics and the right carries on while the left collapses.

    “Politics is bad because politicians are unrepresentative of the people, so don’t get involved with it” is a vicious circle. We need to break it, and there was a time when one of the main aims of the Liberal Democrats and both its predecessors (in different ways) was to break it. I have no time for those who say the answer is pressure groups and silly things like “Occupy”. This line is essentially “If we ask again and again and beg and plead and look a bit pathetic, the politicians who lord it over us will somehow feel a bit sorry for us and change their minds”. Oh, come on, it’s actually easier to change the politicians, that’s what democracy is for. Otherwise what are those who don’t get involved in democratic politics really holding out for? A violent revolution? Oh come on again, in the unlikely event of such a thing happening, when they do it generally isn’t nice and doesn’t work out well.

    Politics is actually very clean in this country. The idea that it is dirty and corrupt and politicians are in it to make large amounts of money is nutty, but cynically peddled by the political right. See how they used the MPs expenses scandal to distract attention from the hugely greater amounts of money siphoned off by the alternative to democratic rule – bankers’ rule. It’s a mark of the inability of most people to cope with large numbers that they cannot distinguish between a few thousands taken in dubious expenses claims and several millions taken for the routine admin work which is actually what a lot of bankers (I use the term loosely, I mean those who have their hands on the flow of money) are actually doing. Corruption is when people use their position of power to take a big cut. Politics is corrupt when politicians use their positions to make private gain, as happens in many countries. An MP claiming expenses for garden ornaments is not the same thing at all as an MP who uses his position to make sure companies he and his friends and relatives profit from get lucrative contracts.

    Right now most people find it hard to see the contradiction between complaining that politics is unrepresentative and complaining about spending money on it so that it doesn’t rely largely on being funded by the wealthy. Actually, most people have hardly any idea how politics works at all – during my time as a political activist I found most people just assumed I got paid for it and worked from a swish office to do it. They were astonished when I told them I worked from my bedroom and did it all for free. It didn’t use to be like this. We are still in a time when within living memory a very high proportion of the population belonged or was at least associated with one of the political parties, and did understand the purpose of the parties was for people to get together and actively participate in the choice of representatives. But I think this idea exists now hardly at all in the minds of anyone much younger than myself (and I am now over 50).

    Perhaps we can start by calling it “funding for elections” rather than “funding for parties”? It’s just a matter of semantics, but I think it helps develop a better understanding. The point I like to make is that an election is like an appointments committee and we are all on the committee. Whoever heard of an appointments committee which worked where wealthy candidates could have a huge amount of time trying to persuade the committee to appoint them, whereas candidates who couldn’t afford to present their own case did not get heard at all? Don’t appointments committees usually work on the basis that the people doing the employing (i.e. all of us in a democracy employing politicians) pay the costs, and all candidates are then given equal time to present their case?

  • David Allen 14th Aug '12 - 6:46pm

    “most people have hardly any idea how politics works at all – during my time as a political activist I found most people just assumed I got paid for it and worked from a swish office to do it.”

    Back in the halcyon days of the SDP, I worked alongside a fellow activist. One day he proudly drove in with a gleaming brand new car. So I solemnly told everybody over lunch that it was an Alliance staff car, and that I would be taking it home that evening. Nobody disbelieved me.

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