Thursday, December 07, 2006

State funding for political parties is wrong.

I participate in that tiniest of minority sports, fundraising for a political party.
From a money-making point of view, it is an activity that will become increasingly less important in future years if MPs like Southampton MP Alan Whitehead get their way. The reason for this is that he, like a number of our political elites, is in favour of state funding of political parties. In his pamphlet "Anti-Politics and Political Parties: The Case for State Funding" written before Labour got embroiled in the "loans for peerages" row, he summarises the state of British polity and identifies how he thinks the media and public policy conjoin to create a culture which assumes that party politics is a nasty business and that those involved in it are to be mistrusted and denigrated. It is a picture that I do not recognise.

Over the last few years I have raised money at a variety of events in Southampton. I am now an amateur expert in organising literary dinners, speaker meetings, tea parties, business breakfast receptions, quizzes, curry nights and afternoon teas. Along with the usual contacts, my mobile phone boasts the numbers of the odd ex-Chief Whip and Foreign Secretary, publisher, famous historian, diplomat among its contact list. It can be hard work and expensive as one covers the marketing costs or expenses of guest speakers at such events.

Why do it then? Because it can be fascinating to hear public figures reminisce about their experiences or provide a unique insight into today’s problems. Such events can be enormous fun as well as being informative and instructive. Guests at such events often develop their interests to then themselves campaign or even stand in local elections; vital for a healthy democracy. The money from fundraising allows candidates with no independent means of their own to contest local and national elections and to fight vigorous campaigns and debate. The whole process develops an interest in policy and politics.

Controversially, Mr Whitehead argues that parties have attempted to hide from their problems at a local level by relying on large donations and loans to the central party, distancing them still further from the local electorate and added to perceptions of corruption and sleaze. The answer Mr. Whitehead believes is that a system of regulated state funding for political parties, targeted to reward activism and participation at a local level. He explains it would not only help to restore trust in parties; it may also create a deeper understanding of the role that parties play in maintaining our democracy. In fact his solution would have precisely the opposite effect.

I am not surprised that Mr. Whitehead is a fan of state funding, after all, the apparatus of public funding creates a lucrative career structure. A graduate can work for his local party branch, then put in a couple of years at the attached state-funded think-tank or charity, a run as a Councillor with the attendant generous expenses and allowances and then stand for parliament. Throughout his life, he has been dependent on the largesse of the taxpayer. So it is hardly surprising that, when he becomes a minister, he is comfortable with the idea of higher taxes. It's not just that they have to keep finding state sector posts for their supporters as some Conservatives allege; they simply can't imagine a world in which most activity is independent of the government.

Mr Whitehead does not recognise the central fact that, it is just wrong in principle to force people to pay through taxation for parties they may not support. Why on earth should one of Whitehead’s constituents, say an elderly resident in a council estate surviving on just a state pension, contribute towards say the design of a new Labour party website or for a man in chicken to follow round the Prime minister?

The majority of the parties' central campaign spending goes on billboards, political consultants and telephone canvassing - more state funding would increase this type of expenditure at the expense of local activism. Even more taxpayer money would make the parties even more insulated from the public

Another consequence of public funding would tend to entrench existing major parties at the expense of newcomers. Last May saw the formation of the ‘Lowe Out’ campaign in Southampton. I happened not to agree with either their aims or methods but they were free to compete on an equal footing with the other parties.

Mr Whitehead maybe forgets that there is already existing, generous taxpayer provision for the political parties. Since 1975, opposition parties in Parliament have received public funds under a scheme known as 'Short money' (named after the then Leader of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon Edward Short). The purpose of Short money is to assist opposition parties in carrying out their parliamentary duties, in particular that of holding the government of the day to account. The money is used to provide research assistance for Front Bench spokesmen, assistance in the Opposition Whips' office and office staff for the Leader of the Opposition. Likewise 'Cranborne money', has existed in the House of Lords since 1996. These schemes are not subject to any statutory provision; each House of Parliament votes the necessary funds directly. The amounts were increased nearly three-fold following a recommendation of the Neil Committee. It is highly debatable if democracy has improved as a result. It seems likely that greater public funding is just likely to lead to bigger, more entrenched party bureaucracies.
In the past, political parties boasted huge memberships - they should be seeking to win these people back voluntarily rather than taking their money compulsorily. Mr Whitehead might reflect that having to go out and raise money from the public on a voluntary basis might just make the parties more responsive and responsible - after all, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds manages to raise more than £50m a year from the voluntary subscriptions of its one million members, more than all of the political parties combined.

Perhaps on reason that members have been leaving Labour in their droves is because the membership treats the rank and file so badly. We can all remember the 82-year-old activist Walter Wolfgang thrown out of the Labour party conference for heckling Jack Straw and then detained under the Terrorism Act. But Blair’s refusal to listen to members over Iraq, pensions, council tax and the conduct of John Prescott are other current examples. The real reason why people feel disengaged from politics is the failure of political leaders to listen to events such as these. Taking taxpayers’ money and spending in on political funding would just make matters worse.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hear Hear! A well argued piece!

6:08 pm  
Blogger Praguetory said...

Good stuff, Matt. Further state funding is damaging. Raising party funds should be entrepeneurial activity as you describe.

1:08 pm  
Blogger Matt Dean said...

Whitehead's original article is at

9:34 pm  
Blogger Ryan Newell said...

UKIP is the only party standing up and speaking out against public funding of political parties.

10:30 pm  
Blogger Ryan Newell said...

You may well be against state funding of political parties Matt, its a shame though that your party refuses to speak up, and be a voice against it.

11:17 am  

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