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.