There’s something very tired and predictable nowadays about news-managed responses to the latest “party funding scandal”. It feels like a couple of fairly junior members of the relevant Comms team get out the clipboard and start ticking off the boxes. Perhaps someone “steps down” from their role – only until a “full investigation” is completed of course. Maybe they “refer themselves to the Electoral Commission” and they state that they will “comply fully” with any investigation. Meanwhile the party had “no reason to believe” that there was any wrong-doing and they have “introduced new safeguards”. And so on.
The latest “party funding scandal” to “embroil” a party was uncovered by Channel 4’s Dispatches How to Buy a Meeting With a Minister, broadcast last week. This time it was the Lib-Dems, apparently being pretty brazen about how to get round Electoral Commission rules preventing the use of proxy donors, including, astonishingly, in the course of a direct conversation with Nick Clegg. Lib-Dem fund-raiser Lord Strasburger has “temporarily withdrawn” himself from the Lib-Dem whip in the Lords (tick) – “for the sake of the party” (ooh, unselfish, very good), and has of course “denied any wrong-doing” (tick). He’s referred himself to the Electoral Commission (tick). A party spokesperson admitted that the donation “may” (tick), “without our knowledge” (tick), have been made on someone else’s behalf but that the party has now introduced an “additional level of scrutiny” (tick) that is “over and above legal requirements” (good, tick). And so on and so on.
But perhaps the most depressing thing about this latest dollop of sleaze is to realise just how little anyone cares. This scandal broke only weeks before a General Election and it features the leading members of a governing party. Yet here we are – just a week later – and it’s already completely out of the news-agenda. The public reaction was a cynical shrug – we are being told nothing that we don’t already know; our political system is now thoroughly corrupt. The super-rich routinely bribe our mainstream politicians – or “buy access” to use the euphemism preferred by our news media. We know this and we know that when our political leaders prate about the rules being “tightened” or about how terribly important “transparency” is, it is just a matter of time until the next party funding scandal rolls up.
And it’s clear to most of us that this is not a question of a few bad apples being naughty, it’s a systemic issue. Everyone’s at it. All the main parties are cozying up to the rich and are desperately trying to squeeze money out of them. If you bring in a rule that makes that harder, they will find a way round it.
So if it’s a systemic problem, what’s the systemic solution? The obvious answer is state funding of parties – give political parties access to a decent income and they won’t need to be constantly dancing to the tunes of the oligarchs. The traditional response to that is the public don’t want it. And – especially in times of huge cuts in public spending – the issue is politically toxic. Baroness Warsi has opined that “the public will simply not accept a plan to hand over…taxpayers money to politicians”, while Tim Farron – in 2011 – said that “now is not the time to be handing over more money to politicians”.
So the debate about state funding for political parties in the UK is shelved once again and we are back to the scandal treadmill and the comms rituals and public faith in our politics continues its relentless decline.
The first thing to point out about the traditional response (“the public hate state-funding of parties so we can’t have it”) is that it’s based on a whopping great falsehood to begin with, namely that we don’t already fund our political parties. E.g. In 2013, the Labour Party received over £7 million from the state in the form of Short Money and Cranborne Money. The largest parties tend to keep pretty quiet about this funding since they divvy it up amongst themselves and have absolutely no accountability to the public for how it is spent. But the important point is that despite state funding allegedly being “politically toxic”, the main parties have happily helped themselves to plenty of it.
But surely the wider point is this; in the late 1970s the Labour and Conservative Parties received half of their funding from membership subscriptions. By 2013, the percentage they raised from memberships was, respectively, under 15% and under 3% – primarily because 80% of their members had deserted them over that time.
If we advocate state funding we are effectively saying that since the public no longer voluntarily pay for the Labour and Conservative parties through subscriptions, they should now be forced to do so via their taxes. It is not surprising that most politicians choose to avoid insulting the electorate so openly.
Instead of looking for a quick fix that won’t wash, we would do better to understand the causes of the huge democratic deficit in the UK, and to look into ways to link any state funding of our now-multi-party system to dramatically increased levels of public participation in UK democracy. One could start by reading our Green House report on party funding, Strangled By The Duopoly, which sets out a number of ways in which this could be done.