Sunday, June 18, 2006

Party funding: democracy versus centralism

Well, party funding is in the news again. Apparently, the leader of the House of Commons "has called for a permanent cap on the amount political parties are allowed to spend". Hmmm. Good, I think. Or maybe not. At what point do you control things? Mandatory spending limits? Not very, well, liberal, is it? Except that, well, I've called for such limits before. Most certainly, they can't be along the lines that "The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have proposed an upper limit of about £50,000". So, if you have a huge fundraising drive, and manage to persuade everyone in the coutnry to give you, say £5, you still can't spend it all? What do you do with the rest, bank it?

No. As Tristan observes in the comments to the above post:
We do need totally open funding of parties, but it should always be up to the individual to choose whether they give money to a party and it should be given directly, not through taxation.

Perhaps the threshold of disclosure should be lowered and all loans and their terms disclosed.
How about: Parties can only spend money that they've declared as having raised, from declared sources. Any member contribution of over, say, £50(?) per year must be openly recorded (and perhaps such donation could be tax-deductible, would beat state funding), no loans except on an openly reported commercial basis.

Parties that can't raise the money from a broad base of member support aren't, by nature, broad based political parties. The problem is, as Rawnsley observes in today's Observer:
The message from the leaders to their members is that they can't be trusted. Tony Blair has always been frightened that the Labour party might suddenly go berserk on him. David Cameron doesn't trust Tory members to get with his modernisation programme, so he has to hand down to his associations a centrally selected A-list of parliamentary candidates.
There's a lot of other good stuff in there (must remember to read more of his stuff, I really like his Radio 4 spots). Essentially, party democracy, and party involvement, are essential if people are to remain engaged. The Lib Dems, to their credit, allow members very strong involvement; in fact, "allow" isn't the right word, I think they rely on it, the party wouldn't exist without member involvement and OMOV on pretty much everything. Cameron's push towards primaries strikes me as a strange move, for two reasons
  1. The American model of democracy is deeply flawed, and worse in many ways than ours; personality politics doesn't engage, it cheapens.
  2. It devalues party membership, why join (and donate) if you can have a vote (by texst message?) anyway?
Of course, the biggest flaw in British politics is (currently) the flawed, choice denying, electoral system. But next up is party managerialism: centralism, control freakery, leader worship. Rawnsley again:
For long-serving governments, especially those with a very dominant leader, it is a particular hazard that the party will be hollowed out. Asquith and Lloyd George, the two great Liberal Prime Ministers, effectively destroyed their party. Margaret Thatcher's reign was marvellous electorally for the Tories, but it was ruinous for the Conservatives as an organisation. As is the way with messianic leaders, she came to believe that Tory success was down to her magic rapport with the people. The party owed the leader, not the other way round, for her three election victories. So she believed, as surely so does Tony Blair.
If funding becomes centralised, going directly from the state to the party machines, then party loyalty becomes more and more important. As Chris observed back when we last discussed it:
it is independence of view that is important in politics, not robots following the party line.

Without a plurality of views opinions all you get is an echo chamber with everybody reinforcing each others mistakes. The best ideas can never be found if it is not even put forward for debate.
IF we're to have state support for parties (and that's a BIG if), then it has to be on the POWER model, giving funds to local parties based on local voters ticking boxes for the party they want tos ee get the money. I'd rather parties sorted themselves out, re-engaged with voters, and rebuilt broad membership bases.

Centralised state handouts will damage democracy and further devalue debate. Reject them completely.


Anonymous said...

I've read somewhere the suggestion of making donations to parties tax free, but then sticking a fairly low maximum donation - £5,000 or so. Forces the parties to get broad membership support 

Posted by Draxar

Anonymous said...

I've seen similar as well, and (broadly) approve. It bothers me that parties are beholden to a small number of high rollers; that's what happened in the US, especially to the Democrats, and look where that got them. Grassroots support is much more important. 

Posted by MatGB

Anonymous said...

I think that you'll find that everything worth saying on this subject has already been said .... here:


Posted by Paul Evans

Anonymous said...

Bah, someday commenters who should know better will learn to insert hyperlinks properly. In the meantime, I'll use my spangly Blogger-Fu and edit it in myself.

I can remember reading that, and TBH, I'm not sold; it strikes me that that's how the US is run, and I'm not sure it's a good way to go. I'm keen on the "impartial civil service" thing, and not too sold on partixan appointments within it.

However, if  that were the purpose of state funding, then at least it would be justified. As it is, they want the money to pay for campaigning and head office staff. No. Not going to accept that. 

Posted by MatGB