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Tory MPs shouldn't vote for more state funding of party politics

By Tim Montgomerie
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On Telegraph blogs yesterday Ben Brogan suggested that David Cameron might try to resurrect the boundary reforms by offering the Liberal Democrats a deal on party funding. This might, for example, involve extra state funding for political parties in return for a cap on big private and union giving. The Tory leader might have a double motivation for this. The latest Electoral Commission figures confirmed rumours that the Conservative Party is finding it much harder to raise funds. The steep decline in Tory membership is also a problem for Tory coffers.

I don't, however, think this is even a starter. Nick Clegg has been very clear that his party won't now support boundary reform. This is partly because of petulance at the Tory Lords rebellion but also because boundary reforms will hurt Lib Dem MPs. As many as five LIb Dem MPs may lose their seats because of changes to constituency boundaries. I doubt that Cameron could get Tory MPs to vote for more state funding of political parties either. The rebellion might not be as big as against the Lords Bill but I wouldn't be surprised if it was very substantial.

If Britain did embrace greater taxpayer subsidy of political parties it would probably introduce a per-vote-grant. This would mean, for example, that parties would get an annual sum for every vote they got at the previous election. If it was £1-per-vote the Tories would get £10,703,654 per year. If it was 50p-per-vote it would still be over £5 million. In a time of austerity are the British people going to support that? The other objection to this model is that it entrenches incumbency. It gives existing parties an advantage over new, insurgent parties. That's a barrier to entry that Conservatives should oppose. And who gets the money? Every party or those just with MPs? If it's every party then the BNP could get a big public subsidy.

The Conservatives in Canada are currently moving away from this model. Prime Minister Stephen Harper believes that democracy benefits if parties have to raise their funds from the people and can't get it from big business, big unions or the big state.

8446_1_jpg_142x230_autocrop_q85I contacted Canadian Conservative MP John Williamson yesterday evening and he explained why his party is phasing out the per-vote-subsidy over the next four years:

"We have passed legislation to abolish this scheme because we do not believe taxpayers should underwrite the activities of political parties.  Those parties should instead earn financial support directly from voters on the strength of their popular appeal, not be handed a cheque every quarter by government.  Indeed, we have seen some political parties, in particular the separatist Bloc, abandoning its independent fundraising and instead relying almost exclusively on the government subsidy.

We believe democracy is best served when our political leaders compete for financial support. And to those who would say business, unions or the rich will buy the support of the political class without a government administered subsidy, I would highlight that it is illegal in Canada for businesses and unions to fund the national political parties and the maximum individual donation is $2,400 each year.  The funding of Canada's political parties is largely the result of millions and millions of small donations.

Among many conservatives a state subsidy is considered a tax on voting because the funding amount is based on the votes a political party receives after a general election.  In Canada it is current $1.50 for each vote or about £1.  The only way a citizen can avoid having this money paid to a political party is by not voting, hence it is a tax.  Another argument could be made that state funding is welfare paid to political parties."

David Cameron shouldn't just give up on extra state funding for politics he must, as I argued on Saturday, give up on boundary reform too. For once, Nick Clegg is not for U-turning.


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