Nick Clegg should say no to any link between state funding and boundary changes

by Stephen Tall on August 13, 2012

It’s August, so I’m not going to take too seriously kite-flying suggestions by Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph that Nick Clegg might consider rescinding his threat that the Lib Dems will vote against boundary changes (following the Tories’ decision to break the Coalition Agreement over Lords reform) in return for a deal on party funding which would include state aid for political parties:

Here’s how it was presented to me: over the next year or so Mr Clegg will find a way to back the boundary review when it comes up for a vote in the Commons. In exchange, Mr Cameron will agree to support some form of state funding for political parties. His side won’t like it, but it will be presented as Mr Clegg’s price for securing a review that gives the Tories more seats. And some Tories, including Mr Cameron, may be secretly delighted to reduce their reliance on donors who are never slow to voice their frustrations when things go wrong. With party memberships plummeting and grassroots cash support drying up, state funding is the gleam in the eye of most politicians. Keep an eye on this one.

But just on the off-chance this is being considered, let’s be clear of the reasons why Nick Clegg’s answer should be a resounding NO to any link between state funding and boundary changes:

    1) Having explicitly said the Lib Dems will veto boundary reforms, there is no way Nick can march back down the hill for anything less than the Lords reforms promised by both Lib Dems and Tories in the Coalition Agreement;

    2) It is even more inconceivable that Nick could be seen to trade Lords reform — with which the vast majority of the public agrees, albeit some way down their list of everyday concerns — for taxpayer-funding of political parties, perhaps the least austerity-friendly policy among voters that could be imagined;

    3) Nakedly linking two measures which have little to do with the wishes of the voters, and everything to do with the political needs of the two Coalition parties, will appear (and be) grubby.

There are legitimate arguments in favour of the boundary changes — most obviously creating more equal-sized constituencies so that voters’ individual ballots count more equally — although there were very understandable concerns over the Boundary Commission’s hastily arbitrary divvying up of communities to make their numbers add up.

And I accept there are arguments that can be made in favour of further state-funding of political parties — but I don’t agree with them. As I stated back in March when putting forward 6 essential steps to help clean up the reputation of British politics:

No additional state funding
In some senses, the debate over ‘state funding’ misses the point: it already exists. Opposition political parties have benefited form so-called ‘Short Money’, taxpayers’ money spent on political advisors; party election broadcasts are freely given air-time; there’s freepost election literature distributed during election times. This is rightly, in my view, seen as the ‘price of democracy’, and is a legitimate cost of ensuring those standing for election can communicate to voters. But the emphasis must now be on restricting spending by parties already subsidised by the taxpayer, not on increasing the supply of public money still further at a time of national austerity.

Update (14 Aug): I’ve posted a follow-up post to this – There’s zero chance of Clegg cutting any boundary deal with Tories over party funding

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.