Opinion: State funding of political parties would lead to creeping centralisation

MoneyRunning local parties must be one of the least lauded jobs in Britain.

Its hard work. There are (rightly) increasing numbers of checks (especially on the money), some with potential legal implications. Its not as glamorous as being a Councillor, and there is no allowance attached. And if you’re a Tory, there’s a high chance that CCHQ will come down on you if you misbehave and do something terrible like select a popular local candidate.

I was reminded of this when I attended the London New Local Party Officer training. I was impressed by both the calibre of the trainers – in the case of Treasurers the estimable David Allworthy – and the enthusiasm of the various participants (its still early days!).

Ultimately getting good local party Execs is critical to both the ability of a party to campaign -but also to the political health of the UK as a whole. They are the ones who sweat to make things happen, who ensure that the right candidates get selected to (ultimately) run the country and whose day-to-day activity keeps the whole democracy show on the road. And these are often the same community-minded people who might also run a local charity or the village fete.

“One of my real concerns about state funding of parties is that it will strengthen the central party political machines”.

One of my real concerns about state funding of parties is that it will strengthen the central party political machines. This may have many benefits: clearer development and articulation of policy (and ‘narrative’; the Blairite offering to modern political philosophy), less room for inappropriate financial shennanigans, more unified campaigning and – frankly – less hassle with the occasionally oddball behaviour of the Chair of the Little Duttlington Party. Party centralisation has been at the core of both the Blair and Cameron projects; and key to their media success. However, the long term damage to British democracy is only now beginning to be seen.

Less need to rely on local parties for money, and (in these days of VoterVault and centralised Voter ID call centres) even campaigning will mean that they have less and less influence. They will increasingly become a channel to communciate (and discipline) local parties. The risk / reward for dedicated local people will get even worse. That role on the village fete committee might suddenly look rather tempting.

And the long term decline in party membership that has partially triggered the current political funding scandals (the other being the escalating cost of campaigning) will continue.

It is rather like (and not unrelated to) the centralisation of Government. Giving local bodies freedom will create embarassing results (“postcode lotteries” in tabloid parlance). But simply reducing that freedom creates a downward spiral where reduced freedom means less interesting oppportunities means talent moves elsewhere means more embarassing outcomes means less freedom. The death loop that Councils have been following for much of the 20th Century.

Clear national, annual limits on spending are far more likely to ensure that we get the politics that we need. And perhaps the occasional pause for thanks to long suffering Local Party Execs.

Tim Gordon is an activist based in Islington, and blogs regularly at http://tim-gordon.blogspot.com/

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  • Funnily enough I am running a poll on how political parties should be funded at http://www.colin-ross.org.uk


  • James Graham 9th Dec '06 - 10:52am

    Once again, it depends entirely on how you use public money. If, for example, you allocate it on a matched funding basis for small donations or money-per-member, then parties will dedicate themselves to more personal contact with the voters. And it’s local parties, not the party centrally, that will be required to make that work. If the party became too centralised and impersonal then members would peel off, leading to less public funding, etc.

    The sort of block grants being advocated by the Tories however, will no doubt create exactly the sort of centralisation you are right to be wary of.

  • tonygreaves 9th Dec '06 - 3:31pm

    I am opposed in principle to state funding of political parties.

    If it is to happen it might be possible to do the kind of things that James Graham suggests though it would be hard to police and open to fiddling. The alternative as suggested by the Power Inquiry is to give voters the chance to allocate funds as they vote but that is in my view linking party funding much too closely to the electoral system. You can do it by votes cast but that is worse, just entrenching the existing set-up.

    In practice the parties will not give up control of monies they receive and it will almost certainly result in more money at the centre. A large amount of money received in this way by parties is wasted.

    One answer to the parties’ funding problems is for them to spend a lot less.

    Tony Greaves

  • David Allworthy 13th Dec '06 - 12:26pm

    Personally I’ve always preferred the Canadian system of party funding and donation controls since researching the subject during the passage of PPERA in 2000.

    As it involves refunds of a percentage of election expenses therefore encouraging more campaigning in a wider number of seats and addressing some turnout issues as well as funding issues.

    Unfortunately however I agree with Tim that any system produced by the Phillips Review is likely to inviolve more beauracy for LP Treasurers. Although we will of course do our best to reduce that when negotiating with the civil servancts as when we got the de minimus limit for donations increased from £50 to £200 last time.


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