Peter Facey is the Director of the New Politics Network. The Network is holding a fringe meeting titled "Party Funding - Saving the Grassroots" at the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth on Tuesday 3rd October 1-2pm at the Hardy Suite, Hermitage Hotel. Andrew Tyrie and Francis Maude will be speaking.
There is a growing backlash in Conservative circles against public funding of political parties. ConservativeHome has recently announced an intention to campaign against it, and has been joined by fellow Conservative-aligned organisations The Taxpayer's Alliance and Direct Democracy.
While we welcome the debate, we are disappointed at the unwillingness to engage in what we regard as the main issues. The main criticisms are aimed not at party funding in general, but at David Cameron’s policy of block grants to political parties.
These criticisms are understandable as block grants would do nothing solve any of the underlying problems we face with British politics and indeed would shore up the status quo which is much of the problem.
Indeed, political parties already get a block grant from the state in the form of policy development grants. This scheme, coming to £2 million, is doled out to all opposition parties with at least 2 MPs in the Commons on the basis of their share of the popular vote. The grants are intended to promote policy development and blue skies thinking within parties, yet the amount of policy coming out of these parties has not noticeably increased since their introduction. Instead, they appear to be primarily spent on subsidising party conferences and other policy development initiatives that parties were doing anyway. Since this frees up cash to spend on other initiatives, it can be said with some justification that these grants are simply being laundered for a different purpose for which they were set up.
Yet block grants should not be allowed to cloud the issue of party funding. They are far from the only system being considered. In a recent adjournment debate in the Commons on the issue of state funding, block grants were only mentioned in passing, while MPs preferred to discuss more elective systems such as tax relief, voter vouchers and matched funding.
To illustrate how over-simplified this argument has become, here are the "five arguments against party funding" as listed by the Taxpayer's Alliance, followed by five rebuttals:
1. The public should not have to pay for cynical, professional campaigning.
Agreed, but it depends on what kind of system is introduced. Any system of state funding ought to be elective - i.e. individuals should opt into the system. If they don't like the style of campaigning they won't opt-in, meaning they would have a more direct say in how politics is conducted than without any form of state funding.