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Joe Armitage: There's nothing much wrong with the current system of funding political parties

Armitage JoeJoe Armitage is Chairman of Medway Conservative Future and Deputy Chairman (Political), Rochester East Conservatives. He also works for a Conservative MP. Follow him on Twitter.

Party funding reform is inevitable, not least because it’s something the Liberal Democrats will cite as a ‘red line’ for any future coalition (their red lines are mounting up - what with a mansion tax and Trident reductions already indicated). It is highly likely that we’ll end up with public party funding, given that there is an ever-increasing number of unashamedly parasitical career politicians amongst the ranks of the three main parties’ front benches. We should not let this happen, however - for the current funding of political parties has little cause for shame.

In the UK, there are meant to be two parties, each at different ends of the political spectrum: the capitalist Conservative Party and left-leaning Labour. Each party has its roots, and the roots of the modern Conservative Party are associated with capitalism and free enterprise, whilst the unions are the roots of Labour. As such, I do not see it as sleazy or inappropriate for private sector businessman and entrepreneurs to donate to a party which typically legislates for low tax-and-spend economies, which allows for business and ultimately the country to flourish.

Equally, it isn’t wrong for unions and their members, if they so choose, to donate to a party that has been historically left-leaning and affiliated with their views on the public sector. Only the democratic legitimacy of the donation process is necessary to attack. For example, the fact that at present everybody who joins a union which is affiliated to Labour is assumed to consent to £3 of their subs being donated to the Labour Party through the political levy is wrong, and it’s positive Ed Miliband has signalled his intention to change this. To truly ascertain whether an individual wants to donate their money to the party, they should be given an option to opt-in.

Additionally, Miliband should be open to legislate to change the fact that unions can become affiliated to Labour despite ballots having exceptionally low turnouts – usually no more than 15 per cent. These changes, however, will give more power to union barons, since their political budgets will be substantially increased without so many £3 deductions funneled directly to Labour. It will enable them to choose whether to donate union money to Labour if their policies are preferable to them... nothing inappopriate about that.

Labour will have to woo union barons, and given that a larger proportion of union political funds will be at their disposal the unions may end up with more bang for their buck – perhaps we might even see a repeat of the Warwick Agreement, which played a crucial role in formulating the manifesto of the Labour Party in 2004. On this basis, it is highly hypocritical of Labour to attack the Conservatives because they are funded by business people supporting the Government in their pursuit to free up the very red tape the Warwick Agreement brought in.

The alternative of public funding is far worse than what we have now. The public loathes politicians enough at present, and selling them the idea of funding political parties will lead to even more apathy than we have currently. In addition, public funding would put inplace an incredible bias against emerging parties which rely on donations to keep afloat – if we want to live in a pluralistic society in which all parties have an equal chance of success, then the current system is the only way of assuring that.

It would be in the interest of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to stop throwing stones at each other’s glass houses, and accept that the current mechanism for party funding is the least worst option available.


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