by Atul Hatwal
Here’s a question: who is Labour’s biggest donor under Ed Miliband?
Is it Unite? Unison? Maybe the GMB?
Answer: none of the above.
An Uncut analysis of donations to the Labour party since Ed Miliband became leader reveals that the biggest single donor is the House of Commons, giving £9.6m. This so called “short money” is a stipend paid to the opposition to balance the advantage a government gains from the enormous resources of the civil service.
Roll in the funding the opposition receives from the House of Lords, the Scottish Parliament and grants from the Electoral Commission for policy development and Labour has banked almost £11.3m from public funding sources since October 2010. That’s more than the combined donations to the central party (as opposed to individual constituency parties) from the all of the unions.
This isn’t a recent a development either. A decade ago, when the Tories were at their nadir, what was their biggest source of funding? Was it Lord Ashcroft? Or a.n.other city gent, eager to run down his bank balance?
Of course not. In 2002 the total donations from individuals to the Tories came to £2.3m. In comparison the amount the Tories drew from public funds was nearly double at £4m.
These figures expose one of the myths in the political debate on funding – that the public will not accept state funding of politics.
Newsflash: they already have.
There have been no torchlit mobs marching on parliament, or any campaigns in the popular press linking pounds spent on politicians to closed hospital wards. Most people take a common sense view on the short money.
They might not be over the moon at their taxes being spent on politicians, but our rulers need to be held to account and spending a few pennies per voter on helping the opposition do their job is a worthwhile defence against an over-mighty government.
As party negotiations on funding are poised to restart, it’s important for all sides to bear this in mind.
Several Labour MPs have privately continued to trot out the trope that the public will not tolerate their money being spent on pampering politicians at a time of austerity, no matter what Cameron has got up to.
Labour’s small “c” conservatives are being ably aided and abetted by their capital “C” comrades on the other side of the House of Commons. It’s almost an article of faith on the Tory benches that state funding for political parties is bad and to be minimised.
Both sides are being disingenuous. Although there are some genuine concerns about the public response to such proposals, opposition to change is driven by a common motivation on both sides of the House: partisan advantage.
Labour and Tory stalwarts fixate on those heady days, when funds are pouring in and the other side is at a crippling financial disadvantage. It makes the bad times seem worthwhile.
But this reverie is not reality. Over time the wheel will turn full circle. And when it does, in the depths of opposition, it’s public funding that will keep them going when the alternative is virtual collapse.
As Peter Watt set out in his post on party funding, both Labour and Tories were jointly culpable in ensuring the Kelly proposals were dead on arrival last November. Now the window has been re-opened, there is an opportunity to right that wrong.
A marginal increase in public funding of political parties will make a major difference to parties’ dependence on the whims of their big donors, the public’s perception of politicians and help ensure a more balanced democracy, particularly at those times when a government is at the height of its powers and an opposition is struggling financially.
The principle has been accepted. The argument is understood. There are questions on the right level of public funding, but this is no binary issue of principle.
The question is whether both parties are self-aware enough to see their own true self-interest?