Following on from Geoffrey Payne’s article about state funding of political parties, I’ve written a rather vast fisking. So lengthy is it that is enables me to trim it down to form a new article all of its own about that most hideous, awful and self-serving of ideas: state-funding of political parties.
State funding of political parties simply ingrains existing power and privilege. It is the ultimate reward for incumbency. What is more, it is a classic subsidy, with all the negative effects that result. If a politician suggested that Morrisons should receive state funding because they have fewer customers than Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda they would be laughed out of The House. Yet these self-same politicians that object to subsidising private companies are far more enthusiastic about subsidising their own organisations. One might think that this exposed a conflict of interest!
If a political party can’t attract the necessary pounds to operate then it deserves to go to the wall. Surely the demise of failing parties is creative destruction, and a failure to attract donors and members a sign that the rot has set in to a failing party. What is more, it is extremely dangerous. Forty years ago Labour and the Tories competed to lard business with subsidies with the effect that they ruined our economy. Do we really want to do the same with out politics?
If it seems that all politicians are self-serving, then it is equally hard to shake the feeling that the Lib Dems support for this is related to the fact that they feel hard-done-by in the donation game. Yet ironically the evidence suggests that we do well as a party despite our relative poverty. 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.
In fact, I would go further. Our support for proportional representation is based on the fact that we get a lot of votes but not many seats. Our concern about funding marches uncomfortably next to this, because our argument for PR is based on the evidence disproving the suggestion that the other parties are gaining unfair advantage from their donors.
There is often an attempt to use the freedom of speech argument here, and it usually revolves around the BNP. High-minded as liberals are, we have always been willing to support the right of those with whom we disagree to voice their opinions and stand for office. But to go from that to state funding is grotesque. If the BNP have support then they should be able to survive on donations. If they cannot garner that funding, then their support is clearly (ballot) 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!).
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. While political parties are undoubtedly necessary and inevitable, that does not make them public goods in the economic meaning of the term. Rather, they are like the Church: it may save us all from damnation, but its funding should still come solely from the believers!
So there you have it: my usual critique. But just for fun I’m going to do that all-too-rare thing and propose an alternative. I should add that I came up with this on the back of a fag packet this afternoon (figuratively, of course, as I was in a public place at the time!) and I’m putting it up for comment and debate rather than tabling it as a policy motion. But 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 my 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!