Why state-funded political parties would be a disaster for our democracy

In light of the recent 'cash for access' scandal the issue of party funding has returned as a principal debate in British politics. As calls for state funding abound, ‘Third Estate’ argues that such measures run the risk of compromising the autonomy of political parties, and thus the cause for a more representative democracy. 

Third Estate
29 March 2012

OurKingdom has covered the issue of party funding for some years, as here in Guy Aitchison's article which explores the possibilities of a state-funded system arrived at through a citizens’ assembly. In light of the cash for access scandal, and the subsequent surge in calls for state funding, ‘Third Estate’ argues that such measures run the risk of compromising the autonomy of political parties and thus the cause for a more representative democracy.

The cash for access scandal is neither exciting nor particularly concerning. Representatives of big business do not need to endure dinners with David and Samantha in order to exercise undue influence over government policy. More worrying is that the revelations have, once again, given rise to demands for the state to fund political parties, so as to diminish the “big donor culture. Such a reform would ossify politics  - institutionalising even more the dominance of the established parties. Insofar as party elites could depend state subsidies, they would become even more insulated from any need to engage with their grassroots, and what is left of inner party democracy would remain in tatters. Meanwhile voluntary political associations would, in effect be turned into quangos.

Elevating parties above society.

In making the case for state funding in yesterday’s Independent, Mary Ann Sieghart argued that the power of unions over labour would be diminished and that the party would thus become more “independent”. When it comes to political parties, “independence” is not always a virtue. It is quite reasonable to object to the excessive party-political influence enjoyed by those who have money to splash. It is however, distinctly whiggish, to imagine that the ideal political party is one that is elevated above the fray of social interests. There is nothing untoward about trade unions – that is to say, civil society organisations that represent the interests of millions – exercising influence within political parties. The problem with state funding is that it would make party elites all too “independent”. The huge financial, and hence institutional, power enjoyed by Labour’s leadership would no longer depend, in any sense, upon its capacity to generate active political support, or upon maintaining a relationship with its social and political base.

Rescuing the Liberals.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Lib Dems have long been the biggest advocates of state funding. Clegg, after all, considers the influence of all “vested interests” – whether they are investment bankers, or the elected leaders of millions of working people – to be equally corrupting. Meanwhile, due to its lack of any solid social base, his party has always had an interest in the state coming in and “levelling the playing field”. It is worth pointing out that it was not ever thus. Up until the beginning of the 20th century the Liberals enjoyed the support of key trade union organisations. The powerful miners union, for example, only moved over to Labour in 1909. Now the Liberals would like the state to come in and neutralise the political decisions made by Britain’s trade unions, to make up for the parties historic failure to maintain the allegiance of organised labour. Yet it is absolutely right and proper that the political decisions made by mass democratic organisations should be capable of advantaging one party over another.

Where public money goes, demands for regulation follow.

While Labour might become more independent from the unions, state-funding would almost certainly make all political parties less independent from the state. There is a reason that the BBC gets far more browbeaten than the rest of the press: namely that where public money goes, demands for regulation invariably follow. Parties getting taxpayer cash would, to varying degrees, be seen as public property.  There would certainly be an outcry the first time an “extreme” party got its hands on public cash. And what if suspicions of nepotism arose? What if it was suspected that a party leader was using “public money” to put his friends and family on the party pay role? Would the state then be asked to intervene in a party’s internal appointments? For sure, I could be accused of making a “slippery slope” argument. Yet it is entirely reasonable to anticipate the political debates that will arise, once society as a whole feels it has a legitimate stake in every political party going.

However awful the current big donor culture is, our democracy would not be made healthier by turning established political parties into quangos. The fairly tight spending electoral spending limits ought to ensure that parties are far less reliant on rich individuals than is currently the case. A British election costs less than a hundredth of an election over the channel. Big donors have become prominent because they fill a vacuum: if Britain’s established parties were not so bloody moribund – if they were capable of generating a level of political support that was in any way proportionate to the dominance they enjoy – they would be far more capable of financing themselves without recourse to the super rich. It is this democratic vacuum that needs to be addressed – and this is a problem that would be made worse, not better, by subventions from the state.

This article was originally published on 'The Third Estate'

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