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.

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Doesn’t this sort of practise embed incumbency and increase the barrier to entry for non-established parties or individuals? Not that I am suggesting it should not be allowed, as you say it’s their money to do with as they wish but it is another potential problem with it.

by Mark Reckons on July 13, 2009 at 7:37 pm. Reply #


You may be a bit behind the curve here. Know anyone who was at English Council on Saturday?…

by Mark Valladares on July 13, 2009 at 7:46 pm. Reply #

Your use if the term Political Assistant is confused, you seem to be referring to an organiser paid for by Councillors but there are many Political Assistants or non-Political Assistants employed directly by Councis who do a very different job!


by Colin Ross on July 13, 2009 at 8:06 pm. Reply #

Now on to what Councillors tithe. In Wolverhampton South West our Councillors tithe but in return they get their leaflets, and their whole campaign paid for (and candidates get their leaflets for free on the basis they will tithe if elected).

If I could be bothered to work it out I strongly suspect we have spent more on getting our Councillors elected than we have had back on tithes – I should point out I am very happy to have spent this money to get our, excellent, Councillors elected.

Chair of Wolverhampton South West

by Colin Ross on July 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm. Reply #

You seem a bit confused over whether the Council Group takes the decision, or the Party (locally or wherever) – your principles 1 and 2 seem to point in different directions. Mark V seems to have something to tell us re-Saturday’s English Council – spit it out, Mark!

I have no doubt that Party members should decide on contributions – and that they should be fairly set (a difficulty being in 2 tier areas). I also think we should not refer to tithing, with its focus on 10% – I think that is too much.

by Tim13 on July 13, 2009 at 10:35 pm. Reply #

English Council agreed to amend the English Party Constitution to provide that as a condition of approval council candidates must agree, if elected, to make a financial contribution to the Party. The contribution will be fixed by the relevant local party(ies). It is to be paid from councillors’ allowances, but the phrase “allowance” is a misnomer. Councillors’ allowances are councillors’ remuneration.

by Jonathan Davies on July 13, 2009 at 11:28 pm. Reply #

That sounds like the wording I saw before. It is almost completely meaningless in practice as it could be satisfied by the group setting a 1p contribution and most groups do already have a “group sub” sometimes of a low level.

Stephen’s second point is effectively one of consent and agreement. There is no particular need for this to only come in at election time. It will often actually be already addressed in the existing approval process. Most approval schemes require group members to pay the agreed group sub. It therefore just becomes a question of what this is set at.

by Hywel on July 13, 2009 at 11:48 pm. Reply #

“But the money they do earn is legally and rightfully theirs.”

Hmmm. I think definite care is necessary with that argument.

If the money is “rightfully theirs” – rightfully the individual councillors’, as recompense for their individual efforts – then that casts doubt on whether an outside body has a right to demand part of that money from them.

I think it’s the element of compulsion that is a source of nervousness here. I’m sure no one has any objection to councillors donating money to the party. It’s when the party starts saying “Unless you donate £XXXX a year we will no longer support you” that doubts creep in.

by Herbert Brown on July 14, 2009 at 12:08 am. Reply #

Over at ConHome they are saying we have to pay 10% to the national party or be deselectyed! Our group sets its own ‘subs’ which are used for group funds, not the local party.

by David on July 14, 2009 at 12:19 am. Reply #

After all, it’s better than state funding of political parties.

In what way? All the arguments that apply to party funding apply to tithing. In addition, you cannot formulate a tithing system that incentivises engagement (e.g. a money-per-supporter system or a matched funding system for donations up to £20).

In terms of tithing itself, I’m in two minds. If the party had a somewhat stricter line ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been as royally screwed as I was when I took on what turned out to be an unfunded post working for the Leeds Lib Dems. On the other hand it IS party funding under a different guise, and one that will encourage councillors to keep giving themselves inflationary pay rises.

At least a straight system of party funding would be honest with the electorate. The English Party’s decision to make this a precondition of candidacy nationwide is a grave mistake in my view.

by James Graham on July 14, 2009 at 1:00 am. Reply #

I agree with Stephen’s arguments which I think are well made.
It is entirely wrong to say that the party has the ability to enforce these payments in a “compulsary” manner. People have complete freedom as to whether they join the Liberal Democrats are not. Indeed someone could join the party, take advantage of the resources the party has and get elected, leave the party the day after they get elected and enjoy the income they receive for 4 years until the next elections.
In any case, the policy is that not everyone has to pay even if they stay in the Lib Dems. Those who are hard up do not have to pay. Local parties have discretion over this.
One point where I do disagree with Stephen is that I really do think there should be state funding of political parties. We know we cannot trust business donations to political parties. It is also unfair that rich people can have a disproportionate influence with their donations as well. On the other hand limiting donation sizes means we get politics on the cheap.

by Geoffrey Payne on July 14, 2009 at 7:22 am. Reply #

I admit I’ve come to this completely cold – I wasn’t even aware that the practice existed, never mind that 20 year councillors had been ejected for refusing to comply.

It *is* state funding by the backdoor, and I don’t like that it is not in the open. I don’t like state funding (far better a vigorous community politics, but I don’t need to explain here what a tough battle that is and how long that will take to build if ever), but if we have to have it it must be clear.

One comparator I haven’t seen touched on is that (presumably) Independents use part of their “salary” to help fund their reelection.

by Matt Wardman on July 14, 2009 at 8:51 am. Reply #

A political party surely has the right to set whatever conditions it likes for membership (apart from ones which would break discrimination laws). I don’t see the condition “we will support your election campaign and allow us to use our logo on the ballot paper, in return for X% of any income you gain as a result of being elected” as inherently unfair.

When I was first elected as councillor, I felt it only right to make a substantial donation out of my allowance as I was only elected because of the past work of the party. Later I felt it an obviously sensible investment to make to help secure my re-election and hence continuation of the allowance income.

by Matthew Huntbach on July 14, 2009 at 10:23 am. Reply #

I’m seething about this, the element of compulsion here is what troubles me. It wreaks of buying support.

by David Parkes on July 14, 2009 at 10:43 am. Reply #

We’ve done this in my local party for many years and it has been a great success. Although our per centage is smaller than the 10% cited.

The money is used on campaigning that makes our councillors more effective.

by Antony Hook on July 14, 2009 at 10:43 am. Reply #

To: Matt – I disagree. If a political party backs you for office, then it should be for the right reasons, namely that they believe you’ll make an excellent councillor.

Not because they’ll get the campaign costs refunded.

Though I agree with your other point, I too would see it as prudent to my job security to make a substantial *donation* to the local party to help fund my re-election campaign, however, to be compelled to do this. No.

by David Parkes on July 14, 2009 at 10:53 am. Reply #

Surely it’s no different than stipulating that cllrs are members of the party – for which they pay a membership fee (some of which gets spent on campaigning).

So titheing goes to fund political campaigning – well if a cllr is going to stand of chance of getting (re)elected then the money has got to come from somewhere. Titheing just relates donation size to cllr income – which seems like quite a rational and fair way of going about it.

Of course it would help if elected representatives didn’t have the power to set their own salaries…

by Ex Pol Asst on July 14, 2009 at 11:11 am. Reply #

David Parkes

To: Matt – I disagree. If a political party backs you for office, then it should be for the right reasons, namely that they believe you’ll make an excellent councillor.

Not because they’ll get the campaign costs refunded.

This is an excellent argument for making the proportion of allowance paid to the party compulsory and at a fixed rate. Then there can be no question of someone being picked as candidate because they’ll contribute to the party. If ALL contribute equally, that’s not an issue, is it?

Anyone who disagrees with it surely has a very simple option. If you aren’t prepared to pay for it, don’t stand under the party label.

by Matthew Huntbach on July 14, 2009 at 1:15 pm. Reply #

So this process is call “Tithing”

Funny – I thought it was called getting blood out of a stone.

by Cheltenham Robin on July 14, 2009 at 2:40 pm. Reply #

Can of worms.

<< PS. Just tried to post a three word comment (above) and got told off for it being "a bit too short" and asked to "try again". Very liberal.

by Chris Paul on July 14, 2009 at 4:14 pm. Reply #

I never thought it, but I agree with Chris Paul about something (well, only the first part of his post – trying to make a political point about short posts on an independent website is a bit bonkers)!

As other posters have said, I don’t have a huge problem with the idea of elected councillors being tithed on their allowance payments. Obviously the tithe might depend on the total amount of allowance paid, and individual councillor’s circumstances. But the local party has assisted you in getting elected, will assist you in staying elected, and will support you in achieving your aims on the council.

If your local party goes bankrupt then that’s not going to help you remain a councillor or do any campaigning. If the tithes expand the local party’s resources then more Lib Dem colleagues on the council is a good thing?

by Grammar Police on July 14, 2009 at 4:54 pm. Reply #

‘Compulsion’ is a fine line, I think.

Of course elected officials aren’t compelled to try to hold on to their seats, but if a tithe is the only way their campaign gains finance for leaflets etc then surely they must see that it is in their interest.

When I raised questions about differing practices in this neck of the woods what some described as ‘compulsory contributions’ others used the phrase ‘voluntary guidelines’ (with the rider that the group would be impressed with a commitment to exceed it). Individual means were an acknowledged, if unspoken, additional consideration.

So I’m with Stephen on this – the language does more to obfuscate than illuminate, and more to aggravate irritations than to provide solutions.

At the end of the day there is only one real answer to party funding – go out and sign up more members!

by Oranjepan on July 14, 2009 at 4:55 pm. Reply #

There are a range of practical contributions that committed Councillors are able to make to their local Groups, including signing up new Members,Donors,Helpers and campaigners and new Neighbourhood Watchers.

It is important for Local Group Leaders to count all Help,dispassionately, including financial `tithes’ that are clearly welcome but should not be seen as the only barometer of service for our legions of talented L/D Cllrs.

Remember that the Obama campaign gathered momentum on many small donations from the faithful.It kept the message simple and involved everyone possible across all age groups,in doing an important local task.People involvement in their neighbourhood or on the street or housing estate.All helpers having a real sense of belonging and being valued by the Party.

by Cllr Patrick Smith on July 14, 2009 at 8:12 pm. Reply #

Firstly, the report and progamme were fairly inaccurate. Most Lib Dem Council Groups do not tithe, and certainly not at 10%. Secondly it is not and can’ be compulsory. However, there is a strong case for making it the norm.

The reality is that a County Councillor for example, may expect to have 4-6 leaflets delivered in their division each year, plus an election/reelection campaign. Using 5000 A3 leaflets to cover a division is not cheap.

Local parties rightly expect Councillors to “keep in touch” with electors all year round.

There are few things more irritating than a pompous Councillor who expects all this to be done and paid for by someone else, while their philosphical objection to parting with any money means they don’t contribute.

Another point is that ‘political assistants’ are paid for by Councils, not Councillors.
As they are politcially resticted by law, they are not frontline campaigners.

Lastly, although cllrs get paid more than they used to – they were almost always the people coughing up the money for leaflets etc in the old days. Most members make politcial parties a loss or a small profit. There will be no return to jumble sales to raise enough money to print one leaflet at election times.

by Mouse on July 15, 2009 at 10:16 am. Reply #

An excellent article, Stephen. Can you come and give a presentation to my Council group :o)

The English Council’s decision is a shame and a mistake. Whether or not “it could be satisfied by the group setting a 1p contribution” it is wrong in principle. It is not for the party to tax councillors (and if it is backed by the threat of expulsion it is a tax, if not downright extortion) and it is not English Council’s place to dictate to local parties how they raise funds.

On the practice of tithing in general, however, I think it is reasonable for local parties or groups to make a direct link between support by the party machine and councillor/candidate contributions. We would not expect to support a councillor who didn’t canvass or deliver or turn up to meetings; why should we support one who does not help pay for leaflets and election expenses. However, this should be decided by groups and parties. The Group could make it part of the standing orders; the party could include information about it at reselection.

As for state funding of political parties, it is a monstrous suggestion that would allow incumbent politicians to finance their own re-election at the expense of taxpayers, while further removing them for the need to engage with and work with members and supporters.

by Tom Papworth on July 15, 2009 at 4:44 pm. Reply #

“The Group could make it part of the standing orders; the party could include information about it at reselection.”

That’s actually a worse suggestion as it would allow a wealthy but not very good candidate to say “I will contribute all my allowances to party funds” and gain an advantage over a better candidate. That approach isn’t allowed in Parliamentary selections.

Far better to have a level playing field

The phrase of “titheing” was originally used in the Bones Commission report which stated:
“Urgent to build the foundations of the MP goal – Fundraising
Make it a condition of becoming an elected Liberal Democrat – at all levels
– that you tithe to the party.”

AFAIK no steps have been taken to introduce this for MPs or MEPs. It would be possible to either generate a moral incentive to do this or amend the group standing orders to require this (all approved candidates agree to abide by group standing orders during approval)

Two MPs who strongly supported the Bones Commission proposals (Nick Clegg and Paul Burstow) have in the history of the Electoral Commission recording such things (7+ years) made registered donations totalling £6,014 and £3000 so you could say an example is not exactly being set.

by Hywel on July 15, 2009 at 5:35 pm. Reply #

Two further points:

Will not “back door funding” prop up an ailing system rather than create a vigorous one? That is an argument for both transparency and perhaps change.

The “they are supported by the party, so they should support the party” arguments underestimates the personal value of the candidate, surely?

by Matt Wardman on July 18, 2009 at 12:34 am. Reply #

Sorry, I have landed on another planet. What the heck are you talking about. If it has to do with tithing out of the bible, you are looking to use it to oppress the people. THat is how it is happening in US churches. Are you seeking to use this for government purposes. You are double wrong. You need to get an honest job to make a living.

by Stephen Davis on July 18, 2009 at 6:20 pm. Reply #

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