Jonathan Mackie: State Funding – Deal or No Deal?
The issue of secret loans to political parties which started as a run of the mill, identikit case of political sleaze – political party provided much needed funding reciprocates in kind with peerages, privilege or favourable policy amendments – has altogether spawned a more pernicious genealogy; state funding of political parties, and a further capping of General Election expenditure.
Those who have tried to raise funds for the Conservative Party, or Labour or the Liberals, will acknowledge the extreme difficulty and often thankless task of raising money. Running a local campaign costs thousands... running a national campaign and providing an efficient and effective political organisation between elections costs millions. Being generous, it is perhaps because of the difficulty of getting small donors, to provide sufficient funds to avoid the suspicious reliance on a handful of major donors, that has led all political parties to gratefully seize the bosom of state funding.
We are of course all to blame for the inevitability that we as taxpayers will have to foot the bill for legions of spin doctors. I confess to smug satisfaction and glee when Labour was initially embroiled in this cash for peerages row. In retrospect, I was wrong. It wasn’t wrong for Labour or indeed the Conservatives to accept loans or donations. What was wrong, and where public ire has been stoked, is that the provider of each loan was until recently concealed. Transparency, or lack of it, is the issue.
There seems now to be an acceptance that it is political donations themselves that are the problem and that the only solution to this manufactured problem is state funding. A wholly regrettable solution to an imagined problem, but one which looks increasingly likely.
The fear must surely be that were political parties to become less dependent on donations and voluntary public support they will become more distant from the electorate. Generating an even greater level of apathy and a more disenfranchised electorate, than already exists.
Part of any political party’s appeal should be measured by the level of its mass membership and donations. Like any service provider it requires to respond to and satisfy the needs of its consumers. Take that requirement away and the parties themselves and their policies will become more stagnant, preserved in the aspic of state funding. The example of the NHS and the education system should be enough to dissuade anyone that state funding is the answer.
Commendably David Cameron has a least tried to moderate the Conservative Party’s enthusiasm for state support with his proposal to link funding levels to General Election votes cast.
But where would state funding of the Conservative Party leave the local Association Parties, already becoming increasingly marginalised and irrelevant. State funding can only accelerate those developments, resulting in more and more power becoming concentrated in Victoria Street.
The further proposed cap on General Election expenditure will only increase the ratchet of the existing politically expedient but pernicious phenomenon of target seat campaigning. As the level of resources available to political parties to spend on their campaigns diminishes, the greater targeting will be required. General elections will be fought not over the length and breadth of the country but in a few battleground constituencies. The Apathy Party will become the largest political force across the country as more and more people become switched off from politics.
None of this may matter if the Conservative Party wins the election... you may say. But it is surely one of the factors in the social division and breakdown of society that we are experiencing, when so many people feel that have no stake in the political process and no desire to become involved in civil society.
From a purely internal Conservative Party perspective, retreating to the bunker of safe seats and target seats, betrays not only our one nation pretensions but also some of the most committed campaigners and activists the party has, but who happen to live the wrong side of the boundary commission tracks.
If we are to have state funding of political parties and it looks increasingly likely, politics and the Conservative Party as we know it will irrecoverably change and not necessarily for the better.
Related links: Labour's Enron moment and Labour gain and state funding loses in Populus survey.