Party funding and union patronage (or the absence of hereabouts)

My gut feeling is against the state funding of political parties. However, if you want fair and even electoral contests then we may have to go down this path.

My gut feeling arises, principally, from a sense that this may become a stitch-up designed to maintain the status quo. I write this as a member of one of the big two parties, and perhaps self-interest should quieten my voice, but I take both parts of my avowed democratic socialism very seriously. A lesser argument runs that those who seek power should be able to persuade not just voters but sponsors; the weakness in this argument arises from the unequal distribution of fiscal resources and the uneven battle this inevitably causes.

Traditionally Conservative backers have come from the monied classes, whereas Labour backers from the unions. Another way of putting this is that Tories are supported by the exploiters, Labour by the exploited. It shows how uneven the money is spread that the few in number monied can contribute more than the many who are without. Yet, still the Tories complain about union power, for they refuse to see their donations as aggregations of small contributions.

At least union members pay their taxes, which is not always true of the wealthy backers of the Conservative Party, and their loyalty to the country is not bought by exchequer bribery. It still astonishes me that tax exiles are allowed to meddle in our affairs, and at least one has a seat in Parliament.

It has been asked of me about my union backing; I have none, and have never had any. Whilst I have enjoyed indirect union hospitality (when they have sponsored events at national and regional conferences, for instance) I have not had any help from them. To be honest I did inquire once of my union whether I could get any support for my parliamentary aspirations; Unite were entirely indifferent to my inquiries. I was not after loading a selection meeting, but did hope to be able to promise help from them if I was selected. I should add that they gave me no support during either of my General Election campaigns. This is not a criticism, I fully understand the need to prioritise the distribution of resources, but merely to show that accusations about being in the back-pocket of union pay-masters is a long way wide of the mark. I have had two spells as Treasurer of Southend West Constituency Labour Party: from 2003 to 2007, and from 2010 to the present. Whilst unions do affiliate, the vast majority of our money comes from individual donations.

I have digressed. Whilst parties come in for criticism, parties are essential, if for no other reason than most voters will not know their candidates and parties provide a convenient shorthand guide as to who to vote for: you can vote Labour without the inconvenience of having to remember your candidate’s name. The democratic process requires parties, parties need money, campaigns need money. If democracy is a battle of ideas, is about accountability, is about openness, then it is also about funding. To some extent a fair fight is promised by the limit on campaign expenditure, but this kicks in only in the run-in to the big day, election day. Besides, much like a speed limit sign in the midst of a traffic jam, it becomes more of an aspiration than a barrier if your party’s circumstances are close to penury.

Asking the tax-payer to fund the political apparatus may offend some (q.v. Cllr Tony Cox), but the reality is that much of the process is already paid for by all of us. Cllr Cox’s bar-room braggadocio will only comfort the zealots in his own camp, but it does illustrate how the argument can be hijacked by those too lazy to unearth the facts (his first sentence is so far from the truth one wonders whether it is intended as a spoof). However, this will be an important debate, and one that will dramatically affect our democracy.

There is much going on in our democracy, much that is changing. We almost saw a reduction in MP numbers and a near-equalisation of constituency sizes. We nearly had the Alternative Vote. We shall see Individual Electoral Registration. Party funding is now being discussed, as is spending by lobbyists and campaign groups. We have a fixed-termed Parliament too; all this changed by a party with a debatable mandate to do such things.

3 Responses to Party funding and union patronage (or the absence of hereabouts)

  1. WhoToChoose says:

    Interesting points made here. It is I think very difficult ot come up with a system that is fair to all. Realistically I think the main issue on both sides is the impression that for Labour the Unions are there paymasters and for the Conservatives it is the richer members of the party. Perhaps we should adopt some system that tries to iron some of the inconsitiencies.
    1) Only personal members of a party can donate
    2) A cap on the amount members can donate in a year
    3) Unions allowed to donate money to parties based on members confirming a) They want too and b) The party that they wish the donation to go to. Therefore possibly supporting other parties as well. As Unions are suppose to support workers views not political parties directly. Subject to a cap per member
    4) Businesses only allowed to donate to a fund that is distrbuted to the main political parties based on membership numbers
    5) No party members can be non UK Tax Payers
    6) General election resources to be provided to all parties based on some kind of allocation process realted to membership. The bigger parties to receive more than the smaller parties.

  2. In business (and local government?) some organisations use a process called zero-based budgeting (with varying degrees of fierceness). So instead of asking for last year’s budget plus RPI, they start from scratch. This takes time but often reveals new ways to achieve an objective.

    Can the same be done with political campaigning – particularly general election campaigning?

    Since the rules were last subject to major revision the world has changed dramatically:
    ► the internet means that direct (and cheap) specific individual communication with a subset of the electorate is possible
    ► the internet also means that manifestos are available free of charge on-line – yet still follow the “book paradigm”
    ► the election mail no longer needs to be specifically addressed, so we no longer need to tie up volunteers in mailing parties folding leaflets, putting them in envelopes and writing or sticking on addresses
    ► membership of parties has dropped so “doing a full canvas” is now rare and the number of fully informed members available for door-step conversations is reduced.
    ► US style telephone canvassing (uncontrolled/unmonitored expenditure?) may be common
    ► election meetings seem to have dropped out of favour
    ► leaders’ tours are highly controlled with ordinary voters rarely getting access to the party leaders – and even party members should, in the view of at least one ex-party leader, be vetted before being granted access
    ► the leaders’ debates have made everything more presidential
    ► we have seen the danger of US style campaigning – where the deepness of the pocket is more important than the appropriateness of the policies.

    Campaigns no longer seek to involve the voter – just to blast the voter with sound-bites and photo-opportunities – many of which are relentlessly negative.

    Is it time to “start over” and consider what is actually required, then what funds may be required and then where those funds might come from? I would be very reluctant to see my taxes spent on leaders’ executive jets, party rallies, vacuous posters, negative election broadcasts and lobbying of opinion formers. I am also reluctant to see any of my taxes spent on supporting any political campaigning whilst we have an election system, where, outside the marginals my vote has no effect what-so-ever.

  3. WhoToChoose says:

    Interesting points you raise perhaps there could be a clear distinction between General Election Campaingin (which could be a ramped up number provided throughout the 5 year cycle) and other activites which should be more in line with Party Membership numbers.
    There must be something I think the problem is that it is “Turkeys Voting for Christmas Syndrome” Unions, Party Leaders, Lobbyists, Business Leaders all trying to keep their influence. It would I think take a monumental effort by an independent group approved by all parlimentary parties to come up with a solution.

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