To tithe, or not to tithe?

by Stephen Tall on July 13, 2009

There’s been a hue and cry today sparked by research done for a BBC Radio 4 programme, The Political Club, showing the number of elected representatives and their advisers on the UK public payroll now tops 29,000 at a cost to the taxpayer of £499 million. And there’s been particular focus on the practise of ‘tithing’, the contributions political parties expect their representatives to make to party funds out of their salaries.

Debate on the topic often generates more heat than light. Let’s first of all deal with the ethical question: is it right that taxpayers’ money should fund political party expenses through tithing?

For me, this is the easiest question of all to answer. It’s a salary, an agreed payment of money for services rendered. Once the money is paid over to a councillor – or Scottish/Welsh/London AM or MP – it is theirs to do with as they wish. You may think they’re all paid too much / should do the job free of charge / pay the taxpayer for the privilege etc etc. But the money they do earn is legally and rightfully theirs.

There then arises a knottier issue: is it right that elected representatives should be compelled to donate some of their salary to help fund their parties?

There are good arguments against the practise: it’s hard enough to find council candidates as it is; ‘political assistants’ (whose appointments are often dependent on such contributions) should be funded from the public purse; the personal finances of councillors in particular varies so much – some depend on their salary, for others it’s irrelevant. There are better arguments in favour: councillors when elected are dependent on the party machine backing them; they will depend on their group’s ‘political assistant’ to do their job effectively; their re-election will depend on the smooth-running of that party machine.

In my view, tithing is not only legitimate, but a no-brainer for parties which want to be effective in delivering results for their residents and which want to see their party’s policies have greater influence in the future. But there are two important caveats to this.

First, it is up to each council party group to decide the matter for themselves. The sensible ones will – I’d hope – wish to emulate the most successful council groups, and tithe their salaries to improve their group’s effectiveness. But of course that has to remain their choice. Attempts by the party to enshrine compulsory tithing in its constitution are wrong-headed and legally suspect.

Secondly, every would-be councillor – or Scottish/Welsh/London AM or MP – who agrees to stand must know in advance of their (re-)election if they will be called upon to tithe their income. If that is what their local party stipulates, I don’t see the problem: it’s their free choice to accept those conditions, or to not accept them.

But with those two principles in place, I see no good reason for tithing not to become a perfectly respectable and accepted practise. After all, it’s better than state funding of political parties.