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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Where now for party funding?

Tomos Livingstone tells us in today's Western Mail that party funding is unfinished business, and that if the Hain affair has one consequence it should be to force the parties back around the table to hammer out a better deal on reforming campaign finance. Alas, his otherwise insightful column offers little by way of solutions.

Tomos is right that the Electoral Commission needs some other means of administering a reprimand to scatter-brained but not corrupt MPs, however that does not solve the immediate problem of how to divorce politics and the decision-making process from those who fund it, if indeed that is what we want to do.

The ideal of course is mass membership parties paid for by subscriptions, but those days are long gone. As a result all political parties are forced to cast around for big donors, many of whom want something in return for their largesse, even if it is just the opportunity to have a drink with the party leader. Regardless of whether that assumption is true or not it is still the public perception and that leads to the creation of a downward spiral of mistrust, alienation, declining memberships and the search for more donors.

In recent years state support for political parties has increased quite substantially, but all of that money is specifically targeted at areas such as Parliamentary support or policy making. When it comes to campaigning the strain on finances is huge as ever-more expensive techniques are invented and pursued. As a result, everybody is casting around for cash.

A cap on donations may be one way forward if a level playing field can be created, but as with all rules ways will be found around them. Such a measure does nothing to help smaller parties compete either and could well entrench existing political battle lines at a time when the electorate is moving away from them.

It seems to me that if we are to dispel the idea that influence is being bought once-and-for-all then we need to force parties to reduce their expenditure on campaigning through stricter spending limits, draconian restrictions on donations and increased state funding for all. That may produce a more level contest but will it be acceptable to voters?
If the days of mass subscription are long gone then perhaps the parties are doing something wrong?

As for state funding - you'd rather have politicians in thrall to the state?

The solution is clear, politicians should have less power, then there will be less opportunity for rent seeking of the type you (rightly) deplore.

Instead, politicians seek ever more power and seek to take money from ordinary people by force because we won't give it willingly.
But doesn't state funding also entrench existing political parties?
It can entrench existing parties if it is not done correctly. I think it is worth looking at the American model where candidates can apply for match funding.

Tristan, if politicians have less power then who will exercise the power, how will they be accountable and how do you ensure transparency and avoid institutional corruption?
Will it be acceptable to voters? Not to this one!

Current state funding supports politicians who have been elected by the people - that's just about OK. It may be a fine distinction, but giving money to politicians who have yet to be elected, or may never be, goes too far.

If you argue for a level playing field why not salaries for Prospective Parliamentary and Assembly candidates? And how much will the BNP get?

I do agree that there should be very much lower and very much stricter limits on spending. The truth is that donations are becoming a problem mainly because politicians are becoming more and more spendthrift at election time. But I fail to see why the taxpayer should pick up the tab for politicians' incontinence in this area.
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