Opinion: Party funding plans to be kicked into the long grass – but what’s the alternative?

Proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life for state funding of political parties were kicked into the long grass by all three major players before the report was even officially published.

Reaction from various interested sources and commentators has been almost unanimously opposed to the idea with some, notably the Taxpayers’ Alliance, outraged by the proposals.

The key thrust of most of the arguments against the plan is simply that the time is wrong to burden tax payers with state funding of politic parties at a time when so many budgets are being cut, jobs being lost and deficits being reduced.

In essence it would not be a very popular scheme to push through in the short term even if it may be the right thing to do.

Is that just another example of politicians putting off the tough choices for short term gain or a pragmatic understanding of how voters would react to the proposals?

Mathew Taylor makes a very strong case in support of the reforms in The Guardian, spelling out that to resist reforms will be an open invitation for more scandals.

But what are the alternatives?

Rejecting the proposals will leave the door open for big donors to buy influence, trade unions to shape legislation and, more importantly, lobbying firms to continue to flourish and buy favours.

A glance across the pond at the mess our special friends are in underlines just how the lobbyists have taken over.

The figures alone tell the story.

In 2010 lobbyists spent $3.5bn on their activities, up from $1.4bn in 1998.

In the same year there were almost 13,000 official lobbyists in Washington and thousands more unregistered. The healthcare industry alone employs six lobbyists for every elected politician.

At the same time campaign spending has exploded, in 2008 candidates spent $1.7bn in total. Obama spent £740m, which is more than the combined spending of George W Bush and his challenger, John Kerry, just four years earlier.

The situation is getting worse. A recent Supreme Court ruling scrapped some existing campaign finance laws limiting the involvement of special interests which triggered an unrelenting flood of new money into politics.

In opposition David Cameron forecast lobbying would be the next big scandal after the expenses row.

Those words could well come back to haunt him.

The decision to kick the proposals into the long grass could come back to haunt all three party leaders.

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16 Comments

  • Daniel Henry 27th Nov '11 - 1:07pm

    Surely the answer is to put in the reforms minus the public funding bit?
    Put in the caps and the “opt in” rules for Union donations without the public funding?

    Jedi, I must disagree with your analysis that public funding would lessen accountability to the electorate. The proposed funding mechanism is based on the number of votes a party got, giving the electorate MORE control over party funding than they have now.

  • Tony Greaves 27th Nov '11 - 3:29pm

    I don’t think the current financial situation has anything to do with it. I am on principle opposed to the state funding political parties’ campaigning activities.

    The “answer” is for the parties to stop wasting money on useless, extravagant and excessive “campaigning” activities.

    Tony

  • Simon McGrath 27th Nov '11 - 3:58pm

    I agree with Tony and Daniel

    @geoffrey – surely you can’t really believe that the taxpayer should subsidise Party Conferences?

  • I agree with Daniel, including his criticism of Jedi’s point.

    Personally I think that the current system is far worse than state funding of political parties – quite frankly, I think unlimited caps on donations and union block votes just breeds corruption due to political parties’ dependence on their donors. State funding is only the lesser of two evils though, it increases the tax burden without giving a tanglible service to the people and risks entrenching powerful parties if money is given out per vote (albeit at least in a proportional way!).

    Perhaps a cap on donations (probably smaller than the proposed one to be honest!) would be the best of both worlds. I don’t know. Ideally all donations would be personal rather than corporate too – personally I don’t want my money to be indirectly donated to a party (even one I support) without my consent just because of my choice of purchase.

  • I suppose my idea may have the problem of if a party’s supporters are rich that a higher proportion would give money than one whose supporters are poor. Still, I suspect it would still be an improvement on what we have currently!

    @Geoffrey – I just saw your comment on Daniel’s post. I understand your point but it’s still an improvement on what we currently have. A small reform is still better than no reform.

    Personally I think that it should be the start, rather than the end, of funding reform, but it’s still something.

  • David Allen 27th Nov '11 - 8:00pm

    We should not support “state funding of political parties”. We should support “state funding of democracy”.

    We already have state support for democracy through freepost election leaflets and PPBs. We should expand state funding for declared candidates at election time, and for parties which saved their deposits through to the next election, to campaign intelligently through e.g. annual freepost leaflets, TV, radio and the internet. Then we should ban billboards and commercial posters.

    The state should fund citizen’s juries and public “focus groups” to deliberate on the issues of the day. We should by now have banner headlines about the percentage vote amongst the public who support the strike next Wednesday, and the brilliant remarks by the totally unknown Mrs Bloggs of Little Snoring who got randomly selected for the jury.

    Fund all these things and the parties won’t need any more state funding than they get now.

  • Daniel Henry 28th Nov '11 - 12:43am

    I like David’s idea of the state increasing spending on democracy and taking measures to increase the debate and information given to the public.

    Would this be too costly?
    A DVD sent to every household on the register.
    Each candidate in the constituency would be allowed a certain amount of space on it.
    It could also hold information that the electoral commission wanted to transmit to voters.

  • Severely limit party spending, and require political parties to fully audited. No need for one bean of taxpayer’s money to fund them, as there would be no mechanism by which lobbyists could assert influence, but we could make corporate donations illegal just to be sure. Sure, the parties won’t like it much, but that’s hardly the point, is it?

    Only people viewing the world from deep inside the party-political machine could possibly think taxpayer-funding was a good idea.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Nov '11 - 12:12pm

    David Allen

    The state should fund citizen’s juries and public “focus groups” to deliberate on the issues of the day.

    This sounds a good idea, but having seen how these things work in practice, I’m not as nearly keen on them as I used to be. When I was Leader of the Opposition in the London Borough of Lewisham, the majority party (Labour) used a “Citizens’ Jury” to close down debate on the executive mayor system. So they got together a few people who didn’t really know much about the issue, fed them a whole load of propaganda on the subject, got them to agree “Yes, we think this Executive Mayor idea is a good one”, and then whenever I, after that, raised objections to it, I was shut up with “How dare you go against what the people said they wanted?”.

    Well, you can be sure that I was never invited to address that Citizen’s Jury, in fact it never heard the case against. What was presented as “neutral information” on it was actually outrageously biased. It did not even say what the MAIN issue is about this system – it involves moving power being held collectively by councillors and instead puts it into the hands of one person. Can you imagine the same at national level – we have a “Citizen’s Jury” on establishing a directly elected national Leader of the country, and they omit to inform the jury that this means the abolition of votes for MPs – Parliament is to be reduced to an informative panel which the Leader is free to ignore?

    Despite this appalling bias, there was a Liberal Democrat MP who wrote a pamphlet for CentreForum in favour of executive mayors, citing the Lewisham example favourably, assuming it had this support of the people, but that MP never bothered to find out the opinion of the local branch of his party there on what had happened.

    The point is, who chooses what questions the jury gets asked, who choose what information they receive?

    On the general issue, perhaps we should call it “election funding” rather than “party funding”. That is, it is funding for the people to be able to make an informed decision when choosing from applicants for the posts of MPs etc. Isn’t this how recruitment to position works in general? You don;t expect job applicants to have to pay for their recruitment costs, with the job going to those who are rich enough to be able to spend more on presenting their case than better equipped but poorer applicants?

  • “The point is, who chooses what questions the jury gets asked, who choose what information they receive?”

    I suppose it would be out of the question to let the jurors themselves decide who they wanted to hear evidence from?

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Nov '11 - 4:45pm


    “The point is, who chooses what questions the jury gets asked, who choose what information they receive?”

    I suppose it would be out of the question to let the jurors themselves decide who they wanted to hear evidence from?

    Yes, and who advises them of the possibilities?

    The problem here is that as with almost any form of public consultation it’s very easy to set things up to get the answer you wanted in the first place. Citizens’ juries sound very radical, but they fall down on the fact that it does require a certain degree of wiliness to ask searching questions and not just to trust what those in authority are telling you. That is why in the end I do feel a professional opposition politician is going to do a better job than someone pulled off the streets. Indeed, I suspect many of us who have been councillors took several years to be fully up to scratch with the job – to know just how things fit together, to know what questions too ask, to know what stones to
    turn over to look for the nasties etc. It’s easy at first to be sucked into accepting what the officers tell you, or in opposition to strike poses on the wrong things while missing the real problems.

    With juries there is a tendency for a lot of the members just to want to end it quickly so they can go back to their real lives, so they’ll take whatever seems the quiet option. They may also be dominated by one or two more loud-mouthed or professionally skilled members who can steer the rest their way. I’m not saying there’s no role for this sort of thing, but my experience (I have served on a real jury as well) suggests one ought to be aware of their limitations and certainly not see them as a replacement for representative democracy.

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