Party funding and union patronage (or the absence of hereabouts)
September 10, 2013 3 Comments
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.