No (sort of) to state funding of political parties

by Stephen Tall on March 21, 2006

The Labour Party appears hell-bent on carelessly tossing banana skins into its own path.

The latest incident is, of course, their not-quite-illegal-but-pretty-damn-dodgy ruse of soliciting £14 million in commercial loans from individual donors whose anonymity they protected by re-naming them Lord [insert title here], and offering these benefactors refuge in the Upper Chamber. Think of it as an Establishment witness protection scheme – but rather more grand, ermine-clad and corrupt.

This scandal – in which the Tories are as up to their necks in merde as Labour – has prompted calls for state funding of political parties. It’s a concept with which I have huge difficulties. It does not seem right to me that tax-payers should be expected to bail out political parties on the grounds that those who seek to govern the country cannot be trusted to obey the most basic principles of accountability and transparency.

Secondly, political parties are voluntary organisations, not agents of the state. I believe that the government of the day is accountable for ensuring public organisations are delivering value-for-money services to the tax-payers who have elected them. Government is not there to hand out tax-payers’ cash to private organisations to use as they see fit.

If we, as tax-payers, do not believe a political party is spending our cash wisely, how would we protest; how would we alter a party’s priorities; how would we measure the efficiency or productivity of its propaganda?

However, I do think that true citizenship depends upon an informed public making intelligent choices, and that the state has a responsibility to nurture a culture in which such free expression can thrive. Proper debate, open to challenge, resulting in balanced conclusions: that’s my democratic ideal.

So here’s my Third Way suggestion for enabling political parties to communicate their views and beliefs to the public, while ensuring state funding of political parties is kept at arm’s length.

At general elections, all candidates are allowed an election communication, often called a ‘freepost’ – that is, one leaflet which is delivered free of charge to every elector in the constituency in which the candidate is standing. Why not extend this system? Perhaps allow up to three freeposts in any election campaign (local or general) to any candidate from any party? And maybe throw in a couple of paid-for party election broadcasts too.

Let’s help political parties to communicate with those they hope to represent. But let’s not give them free money, provided by the tax-payer, to do with as they wish.