UK Liberty

Do turkeys vote for Christmas?

Posted in party funding by ukliberty on November 29, 2006

As the Labour Party slides ever further into the red, and things heat up for it (and the other main parties) on the cash-for-peerages scandal (you can find details on the loans at the Electoral Commission’s website), its representatives seem to be appearing more often in the media talking about the future of funding for political parties, and why it should be the taxpayer, i.e. me and you.

I thought I might pop over to the Labour website and have a look at their ideas.

The Labour Party believes it is right that as a country we continue to invest in our democracy, by supporting strong links between citizens and their democracy. People are not apathetic about political issues – one only needs to look at the enthusiasm demonstrated for tackling issues such as global poverty.

The Labour Party believes, however, that political parties play an essential role in sustaining our political institutions, without which we cannot have a healthy, participatory democracy.

As power is devolved at every level new institutions are being created at local, regional and European levels. These institutions need relationships with politicians. There has to be investment at all these levels to ensure healthy democracy.

It is important that the review respects the membership and constitution of political parties. We believe, for example, that all our affiliates – be they socialist societies, trade unions, Constituency Labour Parties – must remain an integral part of the Labour party and we must maintain our strong links with the Coop Party with whom we share a long and proud electoral tradition.

And that’s it! There is no suggestion that political parties should live within their means, like the rest of us have to.

Let’s have a look at Labour’s review.

The Labour Party now believes it is time to invest further in our democracy. The Review will want to examine on what criteria increased public funding shoud be based.

Ah, “invest in our democracy” – I like it. Who could argue with that?

Skipping through…

We believe that all political parties should conduct their finances in a way that is transparent, sustainable and fair.

HahahahaHAhahahAHA… very good. Someone at party HQ has a great sense of humour, don’t they?

Hayden Phillips’ review of the funding for political parties is finished and he has published an interim assessment, prior to reporting to the PM in full in December. According to this assessment,

For many people party politics is a turn-off. Party membership has substantially declined. There is widespread disenchantment with politicians. Yet everyone knows that parties are essential to democracy and there is no mature democracy anywhere in the world in which political parties do not play a vital role.

There is widespread disenchantment with party politics, not only in the UK but in many other democracies. Turnout at elections has fallen. So has membership of political parties… When it came to power in 1997 the Labour Party had around 400,000 members. Now it has around 200,000. The situation is similar for the Conservative Party as well, which has seen a long-term decline in its number of members.

And why is that?

Trust in politicians at a national level and trust in political parties are both low, and have been subject to a long-term decline. Polling research indicates that people feel distant from parties, and they feel that parties are only interested in them at election times. According to research undertaken by Ipsos MORI for the Committee on Standards in Public Life, trust in “your local MP” is relatively high at 48% while trust in “MPs in general is at 29%”.

But rather than improve the level of trust, the solution, according to Labour, is to give them more of your money.

I remain unconvinced as to why I should pay for parties that I fundamentally disagree with, but let’s take it as read that parties in general are essential to democracy. Are the three main parties specifically – Labour, the Conservatives, and the LibDems – essential to democracy?

An independent inquiry – the Power Inquiry – was setup some time ago “to explore how political participation and involvement can be increased and deepened in Britain. Its work is based on the primary belief that a healthy democracy requires the active participation of its citizens.”

What the inquiry found is that there are several myths and ‘red herrings’ about political disengagement in the UK. Not least among these is the idea that we are apathetic – we aren’t. An increasing number of people are getting involved with charities and community work. More people are becoming involved with (and voting for) minority parties.

But generally we are disengaging from what most people immediately think of as ‘politics’ – the formal politics of councils and Westminster, for example.

According to the inquiry, the reasons for disengagement appear to be that

  • citizens do not feel that the processes of formal democracy offer them enough influence over political decisions – this includes party members who feel they have no say in policy-making and are increasingly disaffected;
  • the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle;
  • the electoral system is widely perceived as leading to unequal and wasted votes;
  • political parties and elections require citizens to commit to too broad a range of policies;
  • many people feel they lack information or knowledge about formal politics; and,
  • voting procedures are regarded by some as inconvenient and unattractive.

Now, which of those problems can be solved by increasing state funding for political parties?

The document makes some recommendations, which I won’t quote verbatim but (un)surprisingly none of them involve increasing taxpayer funding for political parties as such. The only related recommendation (out of 30) is no. 20:

State funding to support local activity by political parties should be introduced based on the allocation of individual voter vouchers. This would mean that at a general election a voter will be able to tick a box allocating a £3 donation per year from public funds to a party of his or her choice to be used by that party for local activity. It would be open to the voter to make a donation to a party other than the one they have just voted for.

I’m not sure how this would work in practice but it certainly seems better than just handing over a big wad of cash.

So, why are the parties (Labour particularly, it seems to me) talking about increasing taxpayer funding for parties, rather than addressing the questions and recommendations raised by the Power Inquiry?

Well, do turkeys vote for Christmas?