The state shouldn’t pay for our failing political system

18th November, 2011 2:36 pm

There’s a train coming down the tracks that could change party politics as we know it. It’s getting so close the vibrations should be felt across the body politic. Yet that’s not the case. So far there has been barely a murmur – the train is party funding reform, and the result could change every party, and our politics.

All parties are guilty of bringing about the circumstances that led us here – and the Labour Party is arguably the most guilty culprit. The flawed way in which our political parties are funded wasn’t dealt with during 13 years of Labour government, either by enforcing changes to a broken system or making a serious attempt to find common ground with other parties.

Labour’s approach to fundraising in recent years has often seemed alarmingly short-termist. Of course there’s the long-standing relationship with the trade union movement, which provides some level of financial security (as long as the unions are willing to pay – something which shouldn’t be taken for granted), but political parties are voracious beasts. There’s the constant desire to do more, driven by the fear that failure to do so will result in your opponents getting the upper hand. The short-termism reached its peak when Labour began to rely on large one off donations from wealthy patrons. We were – at least – receiving the largesse of the 1%, and it felt good, but it was unsustainable. Cash for honours derailed the money wagon, and the party was never able to get in back on the road again. In terms of fundraising, we probably reached our nadir earlier this year when Alastair Campbell’s £10k donation made him the single biggest donor to the party.

In some ways that’s not too surprising. It’s an immutable law of politics that the rich are more likely to give you money if it looks like you might form the next election. Right now, that’s by no means certain, and even if we were the runaway favourites, we’re still years from government. For high rollers, we don’t yet look like a good bet.

If new rules are introduced on large donations – which may not be the case – then that problem dimishshes, but more importantly it will vastly increase the importance of small donations in British politics. That means political parties will need to engage and enthuse a far wider cross-section of the population and vastly improve the care and attention given to members (the lifeblood of political parties). At present many party members (from all parties) feel under appreciated and ignored. You’ve probably all heard the term “leaflet fodder” – and who hasn’t felt like that, when your views are ignored but you’re the only thing keeping your party going.

Under a different system – where party funding was reliant on enthusing party members and supporters, nurturing them and building two-way conversations with them – no member would be allowed to feel ignored. (As a knock on effect, we might even see an upside in genuine party democracy, but that’s for another day…).

There is one potential escape route for the three major parties that would allow them to continue pretty much as normal – state funding. Funding based on the number of votes cast in general elections would secure the current hegemony, but could also lead to lazy parties, secure in their own funding and distant from the membership that should sustain them. If you are certain that you will always have enough money in the bank to sustain your party and campaigning – regardless of your decisions – why bother to keep your membership happy, or even have a membership at all? Why not just have a loose supporters network designed to cheerlead and bolster the leadership? A party without a party. A party without a soul.

More importantly still, state funding is a “get out of jail” card for the political elite. Good political parties are able to sustain themselves financially, through building networks of support and by convincing would-be donors that they are worth backing. By and large political parties receive the funding they deserve (one way or another). State funding of parties would be asking the state to pick up the tab for our broken party political system, and an endorsement of the idea that joining a political party is pointless.

Worse still the public would think that politicians were just out for themselves.

And they’d be right.

  • Wayne Smith

    idea was first muted a few months ago with the thought that each vote received
    by a member of the public at the ballot box would give that party around £3 in
    state funding – I said then and I’ll say it again, if this is ever made law and
    people are criminalised for not voting, I will for the first time in my life
    abstain from voting in the general and local elections. Just to make my point I
    would relish the opportunity of being made a criminal for not casting my vote
    .. and for as long as this remains on the statute books I will refrain from
    ever voting again, until and unless it is repealed

  • Rob Oxley

    This is a good article but it would be taxpayers footing the bill, not “the state”

  • Anonymous

    well put!!

  • BritishCitizen

    is always on the assumption that we want political parties to continue at all.    On the
    current evidence, I don’t think we do.


    corrupt, incompetent, ineffective… what is there to commend politicians or
    their party dogma to the British people?   There is little to choose
    between them, these days, when it comes to acting in the best interests of
    ordinary people.  It’s just the same old, same old. 


    fund them with taxpayer money sends a message that existing political parties
    are to remain a permanent fixture in our society.  They shouldn’t make
    that assumption any longer.


    we find a better democratic structure, political parties can continue to fund
    themselves in the same partisan way: the rich and the powerful backing their
    own kind. 


    But a
    major change will come soon as a result of the chaos, poverty and iniquity
    brought upon ordinary people by the complacent fools in parliament who pretend
    to represent us.


    Andreas Whittam-Smith observed in the Independent last month (  “Western nations are now ripe for


    Let us
    hope that a peaceful but radical solution to party politics comes very soon.



    • Phil Hunt

      This is always on the assumption that we want political parties to
      continue at all.    On the current evidence, I don’t think we do.

      If a gropu of people mostly agree on the same analysis of the situation and policies to fix it, it makes sense fro them to work together. That’s why political parties exist.

      The problem isn’t parties, it’s parties that’re too strong. This problem is caused by the FPTP voting system, it it’s what needs to be fixed. We should change to something sensible, such as STV, that will make it easier for independents to win, and at the same time make party links looser.

  • Mike Homfray

    The only option to vested interests funding parties is to have much stricter controls and state funding as they do in Germany. So I support this.

  • Anonymous

    I expect that state funding of parties would ensure the Government in power at the time would lose the next General Election  – by a landslide.

    I for one would vote against the Government  – no matter which Party – as a matter of principle and try to persuade others to do the same.

    I doubt if I would be alone…

  • Phil Hunt

    If parties are to be funded by the state, how about the state matching pound-for-pound membership fees, with a maximum of £100/member. This would mean that parties were dependent on their members for funding.

    • Mike Homfray

      Not a bad idea. How does the system work in Germany?

      • Phil Hunt

        I’ve no idea; should I?

    • derek

      When has a party ever held true to it’s memberships wishes? the control wagon rolls on and were edging closer to the abyss of total control and appointed governments.
      It’s all AUXLEY!!!!

    • derek

      Sorry should have read………. Aldous Huxley 

  • Roger McCarthy

    So why precisely is it that Germany and France have in general much higher participation rates in politics (higher turnouts, more party members, relatively flourishing as opposed to increasingly moribund local government) and AFAICT despise their politicians far less than we do?

    Isn’t it in bad faith to argue against something while failing to acknowledge that its implementation elsewhere has had the opposite effect to those you predict here? 

    Are the French PS and the German SPD really ‘just loose supporters networks designed to cheerlead and bolster the leadership’ while Labour is a model of internal democracy?

    Now I can see a very strong Straussian or Machievellian argument that agrees with you on the grounds that Labour seriously is threatened with being electorally destroyed by the triple whammy of boundary reviews, voluntary individual voter registration and a donations cap that will hurt us vastly more than the Tories and Lib Dems. 

    So if they do pull back from a hard donations cap because it is recommended as part of a package that includes state funding and they can’t see state funding being politically acceptable then that gets us off at least one hook. 

    But at the end of the day the Tories will still go into the next election with vastly more money than us – whereas a simple and fair system of state funding would put all parties on an equal playing field and make maximising  total votes and voter turnout much more important.

  • Pingback: Foreign Policy and I | Foreign Policy and I()


  • Featured News Labour figures react to death of Denis Healey

    Labour figures react to death of Denis Healey

    Labour figures are today reacting to the news that former Chancellor Denis Healey has died at the age of 98. We’ll keep this post updated as more come in. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: “Denis Healey was a giant of the Labour Party whose record of service to his party and his country stands as his testament. “He distinguished himself with his military service during the Second World War and continued that commitment to the British people as a Labour politician […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News 10 of the best Denis Healey quotes

    10 of the best Denis Healey quotes

    Denis Healey passed away today, aged 98. He was a giant of Labour politics, sitting in Parliament for 62 years until his death, having become a peer in 1992. He once told a reporter: “A statesman is a dead politician. I am in the home of the living dead which is betwixt and between: The House of Lords.” He will be remembered as an eloquent and quotable politician – here’s another 10 of his best lines. “First law on holes. […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Denis Healey passes away aged 98

    Denis Healey passes away aged 98

    Denis Healey, who served the Labour Party as both Chancellor and deputy leader, has died at the age of 98. He was an MP for forty years, having being elected as the member for Leeds South East in 1952 and Leeds East in 1955, and standing down in 1992. He then became a peer later that year. Throughout his forty-year career as an MP, Healey served as Secretary of State for Defence (1964-1970) under Harold Wilson, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1974-79) […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Tory ministers have failed to act on the emissions test scandal

    Tory ministers have failed to act on the emissions test scandal

    When the VW emissions scandal began to unfold last week, I said that the problem might well end up being far wider than the 11 million vehicles we had been told about. Sadly, this has turned out to be the case. As the scandal gathers pace, many more diesel cars within the VW brand, including Audi, Seat and Skoda have been found with the defeat device that cheats emissions tests. What’s more, cars built by Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroen, Fiat, […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Why Corbyn’s Labour should support the Cities Bill

    Why Corbyn’s Labour should support the Cities Bill

    Anyone looking for definitive policy commitments at Labour Party Conference this week would have left Brighton feeling disappointed. The new Labour leadership deliberately eschewed any attempt to pin the party down on a whole range of specifics, announcing instead a series of major reviews into big institutions like the Treasury and the Bank of England, and into particular policy areas, like housing and devolution. But when Parliament resumes in two weeks’ time policy decisions will be required, not least on […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends