Friday, 7 December 2007

Politcal Parties must be state funded

It is the policy of the Liberal Democrats to support the state funding of political parties. Although the party hierarchy is rather coy in saying so. Within the Liberal Democrats there is a lot of opposition to this policy.
But lets look at the options.
Even after passing some rather draconian and much welcome laws, there is still a culture of corruption in Labour. Whoever the new general secretary of the Labour party is will have to put that right. But this puts Labour in a spot; can they really compete with the Tories in their financing, and how would they feel about being more dependent on the unions than ever?
There is less pressure on the Tories. They are even more dependent on wealthy individuals and company donations, but as long as they keep to the law, they are sitting pretty. However they are still vulnerable to charges that doners can but influence.
For the Liberal Democrats the situation is clear. The bias in the system is so bad, particularly against us, we MUST change it.
The status quo is a shambles, and needs reform.
The popular solution as far as the electorate is concerned is to limit large donations, make parties reliant on membership funding.
I see this as a partial solution. It is good that parties are funded by members. But there are 2 problems.
First is that this puts in a bias in favour of the Tories. Their members are richer and will pay more. The beauty about democracy is that everyone's vote is equal, whether you are a millionaire or a cleaner. But when it comes to funding - and possible influence on the political parties, then the millionaire has the greater say.
Second is that the money coming in will not be enough. The Liberal Democrats are currently locked in a vicious circle. If you phone membership, you cannot get through. You can leave a message, but when you get a reply your phone is switched off because you are at work ... it is all very inefficient and the outcome is fewer members. Fewer members means less income. Less income means underfunded membership services.
On a related issue Operation Black Vote (OBV) claims that the Lib Dems are doing the least of all the political parties on attracting black members. When they say it, the implication is that the Lib Dems don't care. Absurd when you consider that our policies have been consistantly the best of all on race relations. The reality is that we cannot match what the Tories are doing as we do not have the resources that they do.
Funding political parties is not about funding gimmicky electioneering - although some money gets spent in that direction. For political parties to connect to the electorate they need the resources to do it.
Those who want membership funding only will see the demise of the political parties as serious organisations.
Many people would appear to want that, but they do not appear to be thinking about the alternatives to democracy; dictatorship or anarchy. You can have that now if you vote for it, but no one does, so is the demise of political parties really such a good idea?
I am aware of the objections;
1/ Why reward parties after they have behaved so disgracefully?
Well if you think they have behaved disgracefully, don't vote for them. That will hurt them. Funding political parties properly in relation to their popularity will still leave them in competition with the other parties. The reward in politics comes from being elected into office, and state funding makes that process fairer.
2/ I do not want my taxes being spent on the BNP.
From a Liberal perspective we would prefer the BNP not to exist. The reason they do exist is because people vote for them. In a democracy you have to be fair. If the BNP go too far and break the law by inciting hatred, then they will be banned. The essence of democracy is that parties give you a choice, some of which you would veehmently disagree with.
On current levels of support, most of the funding will go to parties opposed to the BNP, so the BNP will not benefit from this.
3/ In fact I do not want my taxes spent on anyone.
Well do you want a democracy? If not, why not vote for anarchy or dictatorship? It is true that independents do not get funded, but they could start a political party as well. The problem with independents is that they can believe in anything regardless of the contradictions, and in an election campaign it is hard to scrutenise them properly.

Anyway, what do you think?


Tristan said...

State funding of parties institutionalises them as part of the state.
They will cease to become independent (as far as they already are) of the state and will become mere functionaries.

If a party says something the majority disagrees with, they will suffer funding cuts.

Already state funding favours the incumbent. More state funding will make matters worse.

If a party breaks the law in funding today, that does not justify giving them tax payer's money to prevent it. They should suffer legal consequences, not be rewarded.

This also goes against liberal policy. Not only does it entrench the status quo and hand the state more power, it removes power from the individual.

If a company is failing, we don't ask for the state to fund it, we let it fail - the same should happen to political parties. State funding will just lead to more of the corruption and insularity which turns people off politics today.

Liberalism is the politics of the individual - the individual should have the choice of who they support - or don't. The state should not take money from them to give to people they disagree with.

As a conservative principle state funding is ideal. As a liberal one, it acts against democracy and liberty.

Personally I think we should let individuals donate as much as they like, but only individuals. It should be illegal for someone to act as a proxy for an individual, all donations should be declared (above a minimum per annum undeclared).
Donating to a party should require a binding oath that this is from you and is your money.

Donors and politicians who abuse this should suffer consequences.
The money should be confiscated. Politicians should be barred from public office and all should be subject to possible fines or prison sentences.

Of course, this won't happen, because all the parties like the snug arrangement where they can manipulate rules.

I think a lot of the problem comes from assuming political parties = democracy. That is not necessarily true. It is increasingly true in the UK where politics is becoming more and more less representative.

Tom Papworth said...


I am afraid I could not disagree more! As a result (and because I’m in a hurry) I feel a “fisking” coming on.

1) “…there is still a culture of corruption in Labour” and there always will be. The Labour Party is at root a socialist movement, and as such has no respect for the rule of law. The ends justify the means, whether it is violent revolution or taking fat donations from champagne-swilling paternalists.

2) I disagree that the Lib Dems should be seeking change simply because there is a “bias in the system … against us”. The “bias” is that people don’t donate a much to us as to other parties. Yet one would not say that there was a bias in the system against Morrisons because they have fewer customers than Sainsbury’s, Tescos and Asda. Donations are a market, and a sign that people really support a Party – as opposed to supporting them once a year on a generally-sunny Spring morning.

3) It is true that richer donors can assist a party more than poorer ones. Thus, a party that appeals to the rich has an advantage. But are the electorate really that stupid? Are they not able to see through the high-spending antics of our opponents. Sometimes this argument tends to march rather awkwardly beside our arguments on PR. The fact is that in 2005 the Labour and Conservative Parties spent £18m each on the election while the Lib Dems spent a paltry £4m, yet the votes that were cast for the Labour and Conservative Parties were only 8m each compared with 6m for the Lib Dems. That says to me that money has a lot less to do with results than people think.

4) I find the idea that we need state funding to make up for the fact that Membership Department are a shower to be exactly what it wrong with this whole debate. If we can’t get our act in gear we deserve to struggle. For crying out loud, how are we supposed to run a country, which we’ve not done for 70 years, when we can’t even run a party, which we’ve been for two centuries!

5) Ditto regarding attracting BME votes. I have to say I do not agree that we should spend additional funds chasing the votes of any minority group – as liberals we should be tailoring our message to all. That being said, I don’t think the problem is that we are short of cash. I think that is just a way of sounding virtuous while dipping into the taxpayers pockets. Perhaps we would be better off asking why our message does not appeal to BME voters, or why BME would-be candidates do not seem to rise within the Lib Dems as often as they should.

6) The doomsday scenario that political parties will die if they don’t get state funding is spurious. Overall parties are getting more money than ever before – surely that is the root of your complaint.

Turning to your proposed objections, the first is a straw-man, the second a fair point and the third a not true.

7) “Why reward parties after they have behaved so disgracefully?” is not an argument I’ve ever heard. However, as you raise it (straw-man style) I would respond that what you are proposing is a good old-fashioned subsidy: nobody shops in Morrisons, but we should pay Morrisons to stay open just so as to keep (false) competition in the market. If a political party can’t attract the necessary pounds to operate then it deserves to go to the wall. In fact, it is ironic that politicians that object to subsidising private companies view subsidising their own organisations. One might think that this exposed a conflict of interest.

8) I find the BNP argument to be equally flawed (both in its inception and in your objection). If the BNP exist because people vote for them (which I think puts the cart before the horse!) then they should be able to exist because people donate to them. If they can’t garner that support, then their support is clearly (voting) paper-thin. People may as well spoil their ballot paper or – if they really want a thug for a councillor – put up a candidate themselves (it is free, after all!).

9) I don’t want my taxes spent on any political party. Nor do I want it spent on farm subsidies. Many of our members don’t want their taxes spent on Trident. Outside the party, people don’t want it spent on Europe. That is democracy. It is one thing to say “well you may have to lump it in a democracy” but another to say “you should not oppose it because this is a democracy”. I expect I will have to lump it, but I’m not happy about it.

On this note, I would add that I do not entirely accept that I should have to lump it. Taxes should pay for public goods because they are the most efficient means of doing so. By comparison, individuals should pay for individual goods on a user-pays basis. You have not established that political parties are a “public good” (as opposed to merely being good for the public).

I see political parties as like the church: if you love it so much, p(r)ay for it!

I realise that the nature of this response has tended to sound a little aggressive. I don’t mean it to, but it is hard to respond to something with which one disagrees so completely (state funding for political parties was getting me hot under the collar long before you wrote this!), and in a hurry (I’m very busy atm) without sounding a little curt. So let’s finish on a lighter note:

Here’s a thought. How about all donations being channelled though the Electoral Commission so that all are anonymous. Of course one could say one will donate half a million quid in exchange for a peerage or a British passport or an exemption for one’s sport to continue to advertise tobacco, but as long as the party to whom one has made the promise receives more than half a million pounds in the year, they’ll never know whether one was telling the truth or lying through one’s back teeth to curry favour. So much for the power of patronage!

Left Lib said...

I expected disagreement from Tristan and Tom.
Tristan complains that the state is not independent. The truth is that nothing is. The state has a better record of independence than anything else in the UK, if you compare the BBC with the privately owned newspapers who are clearly more biased. But there is no institution that has ever been unbiased, no matter how hard they try.
Tristan is wrong on another point. The Lib Dem policy is to support state funding of political parties.

I do not know if I can keep up with Tom!
1) I do not get the concept that a socialist party is by definition corrupt. Sometimes they can be. But since Labour has become "New Labour" and capitalist with it, it has suffered even more corruption than it usually does.
2) Political parties are not supermarkets. In a capitalist system, you can still do something unpopular and make a profit in doing so. Spammers of emails are an example of that. Political parties have to find a way of being popular or they end up like the SWP. Even with state funding.
There is no parallel with customers spending more money. It is the rich buying influence that determines the level of funding for Labour and Tories, not customers buying a packet of crisps.
3/ Having argued that the Lib Dems needs to behave like a supermarket and sell better products, I find it ironic that you turn your argument on it's head and say that how much profit you make (which is this case you can reinvest back into the party) makes no difference.
Of course it makes a difference. By the time of the 2005 general election, most sensible people agreed that the war in Iraq was a stupid idea, but the pro-war parties still won more than 70% of the vote! There were other issues as well, but Labour and Tories were better at targetting their vote and there is no doubt it made a difference.
4) We can't "get our act together" because it is not easy to recruit volunteers and low paid staff to work in the most expensive part of London. We do not have to be located there, but since that is where the MPs and the media are based and operate from, I doubt it is feasible to relocate either. The Lib Dems could cease to be viable due to lack of funds. That in itself does not appear to be democratic. In addition, if serious politcal parties lack funds, they are not in a position to research policy, and cannot do their job properly.
5) On BME, the party has always had excellent policies but has always lacked role models. The Tories are doing much more than we are on this because they have more resources. It would be a travesty if they overtake us in their appeal to the BME communities.
6) If there are laws to limit donation levels on political parties, they will get less money. That is the simple point I was making.

No one would donate to the electoral commission. They donate usually to one political party. The US is different because of the crony capitalism that exists there.

Tom Papworth said...


To address those points in turn:

1) My suggestion that Labour is naturally corrupt was supposed to be slightly tongue-in-cheek. However, socialism is based in a revolutionary doctrine that puts ends above means and does therefore result in a less solid belief in the rule-of-law.

2) I agree that “Political parties have to find a way of being popular” but I do not see why this popularity cannot be the source of their funding. As you are clearly horrified by the supermarket analogy, however, why not take charities as a metaphor instead? They get their money by appealing to people’s better nature/wallets. They don’t need government money to keep going, and some are even wary of taking government money to deliver specific projects because of the corrupting effect of doing so.

3) The suggestion that the failure of anti-war sentiment to translate into an election-winning result for the Lib Dems was due to the other parties out-spending us is self-deluding. The fact that too many who opposed the war (not just Lib Dems but minor parties too) struggled to grasp was that in May 2005 Iraq was not the deciding issue for most voters. Most voted based on the usual cocktail of taxes and benefits that shapes every election. They weren’t on their way to the polling booth with an image of Tony Blair shaking hands with George Bush burning a hole in their heart, only to see a Tory poster on a wall and say “Oh look. Maybe I’ll vote for that Michael Howard after all.”

Anyway, I don’t think I said money makes no difference. I said I think it’s relevance is exaggerated, as the figures I cited demonstrate. And as for suggesting that I argued “that the Lib Dems needs (sic.) to behave like a supermarket and sell better products”, that’s just silly.

4) This is classic industrial policy moved into the political arena. The Lib Dems are not going to cease to be viable due to lack of funds, but they may struggle if they cannot convince people to donate. Considering that the recommended membership fee is less than a pound a week, attracting money from rich donors is only part of the problem. It’s the grassroots supporters we lack: the Labour and Conservative parties have three times our membership and yet get less than 1.5 times as many votes. The taxpayer should not be obliged to compensate us for our failure.

5) My bet is that the Conservatives have been getting more votes than us from among BME groups for years. If it’s role models we want, we should select talented BME candidates – something which costs nothing at all.

6) I thought the point you were making was that the taxpayer should replace the finding foregone from individuals. That is where I disagree.

7) I did not suggest anybody donate to the Electoral Commission. I suggested they donate via the electoral commission, thus anonymsing all donations.