After Falkirk, it’s time for state funding of political parties

by Dan McCurry

When somebody wants to end a relationship, they don’t engage in a rational conversation, they engage in rudeness, spite, and provocation. The end of the end maybe a rational discussion, but the beginning of the end nearly always starts with unpleasantness. The manner of Len McCluskey’s conduct in recent times has been unacceptable. This is not clumsiness, ignorance or accident. It is downright rude, and he knows it.

When the Tories have attacked Labour’s union relationship in the past, it has had little effect. Voters know Labour is fearful of indulging the unions to much, and that the unions support ordinary working people. However, the recent Tory attacks are different. Cameron, at PMQs, was not attacking Len McCluskey, he was attacking Ed Miliband. His allegation was that Miliband is not in control.

My first observation of the power of unions over Labour was at the 2009 Bournemouth conference. I arrived as delegate, excited and empowered with my vote. I wanted to put forward a motion and lobby other delegates to back my ideas. I soon realised that the results are stitched up by the unions beforehand. The delegate vote is window dressing for the membership.

The unions own the Labour Party conference. It is an annual jamboree where they get to take the stage and pontificate before some of the most powerful politicians in the country. There is nothing wrong with this. They paid for the conference so surely they can enjoy it. But when we witness them booing the name of a former leader, Tony Blair, what are we to make of this?

At the time it was dismissed as a one-off silliness, but it didn’t end there. The contempt has continued. Do these people have a respect for the institution of the Labour party, or are they only at conference because they are paymasters and therefore entitled to a good piss-up? If so then it’s an extremely expensive piss-up.

The unions give us millions each year, and they obviously have a duty to question whether these donations are in the interests of their fee paying members. They may also ask whether the high profile funding of Labour serves their image well, taking into account the barrage from the other main party, which must breed hostility in managers. There is a serious question as to whether funding Labour is a liability rather than an asset to the unions.

The alternative to union funding is state funding. If the level of state funding were sufficient then no party would be obliged to a specific interest group. Politics would be less dirty in terms of allegations and suspicions.

This doesn’t mean an end to the union relationship with the Labour party. There will still be affiliations and common cause, as well as historical and cultural comfort.

For example, it should be Labour’s policy to free up the law on union recruitment, because if unions were more widespread then this should cause an upward pressure on wages. However, this idea is unlikely at the moment. As David Goodhart recently argued, union power causes Labour to be shy of discussing union issues. In fact, Labour doesn’t like to be seen to do anything for the unions, because of the allegation of being bought.

Politicians shouldn’t seek a clause 4 moment, they should allow them to arrive. David Cameron damaged himself and his party by suddenly producing the same sex marriage bill. His clause 4 opportunity happened when he was leader of the opposition. He should have confronted his party over Europe, but missed his chance and has paid ever since.

Miliband’s opportunity maybe before him. Labour’s recent focus groups have reported a permanent view of Miliband being “old” Labour, where “old” means unable to govern. We’re told that he can only breach this perception by doing something disruptive. The policy of state funding would be disruptive.

Dan McCurry is a Labour activist who blogs here

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25 Responses to “After Falkirk, it’s time for state funding of political parties”

  1. swatantra says:

    We’ve been saying that for 5 years and more. Elections could then be fought on policy not who has the most money and best adverts. It would put the Parties on a level playing field and stop the Tory election war chest building up with foreign money.

  2. Chris says:

    “The alternative to union funding is state funding. If the level of state funding were sufficient then no party would be obliged to a specific interest group. Politics would be less dirty in terms of allegations and suspicions.”

    State Funding is certainly ONE alternative, but not the only one.

    Let’s just wind back a little and broaden things out a little. It is pretty widely acknowledged that there is a wide, and widening, gap between politicians and the general voting public. Whether it be a Rochdale pensioner casually dismissed as a bigot for questioning immigration, a homeowner facing capital loss and years of upheaval without benefit or compensation because his home is 10 yards outside an arbitrary compensation zone for HS2, or a student seeing his fees triple despite seeing the party that promised not to raise them being in government is immaterial.

    People increasingly feel that the parties and politicians don’t listen and don’t care – that they exist in their hermetically sealed bubble reinforcing each others’ sense of entitlement and self-righteous certainties.

    If parties get state funding it will remove one of the last tenuous links they have to the general voting public. If we want politicians (of any and all parties) to be more reflective of, and responsive to, voters, then state funding is the very last thing that should be considered.

    Labour hasn’t got itself into a pickle over union funding because the unions fund Labour – they always have – but because union funding has become disproportionate and the perception exists that the unions have Labour over a barrel and can hence dictate policy/direction/candidate selection and so on.

    If Labour was still getting £10m from the unions but also had 500,000 individual members each paying a £20 subscription (£10m too) then the union element would not be such a problem. Or if Labour-supporting union members individually joined the party and personally paid membership instead of paying the political element of the union sub then the perceptions would alter.

    Both Labour and Conservative have become overly reliant on their big donors. They have become lazy. They have forgotten the importance of the individual member/voter, whilst developing a sense of entitlement.

    Political parties need members to thrive and survive and have no automatic right to exist.

    If a party cannot attract enough money to maintain itself in an independent manner, then it should cease to exist. State Funding would encourage even greater complacency and would see parties existing long after their sell-by date

  3. steve says:

    State funding is an absolute no-no. Don’t expect tax-payers to stump-up just because the membership/supporters of mainstream parties can’t be bothered to support their own political elites.

    On the matter of the booing of Tony Blair at Conference – what on earth were those people thinking of? How dare they!

    The many millions, if not billions, of Tony Blair’s fans are distressed to be reminded of this – and in particular, because your reminder is delivered on the same day we hear news of Pope John Paul III’s elevation to sainthood.

    Allow me, in modesty and while while saturated with attitudes of obeisance, make amendation: St Tony Blair.

    Oh yes! What a gush of misanthropy voluminously welled as I wrote those words. Let us be assured – His day will come!!!

  4. Robert says:

    I agree with state funding of parties. It is the only alternative to parties being funded by the rich or trade unions, although I do not have a major problem with the latter.

  5. paul barker says:

    If you are suggesting money to be given in proportion to votes then Im certain The Libdems would back the idea. With 2 of the 3 main Parties behind it the idea would have a real chance.

  6. Rallan says:

    No state funding. Labour has no special rights and neither do the Tories. If you can’t get the support you need then you deserve to fade away. You already take (steal) tax payers money on the sly.

    If politics is too expensive then make it cheaper. Only that would allow other voices to be heard, which absolutely terrifies you, eh? Well, tough.

    You’ll only get what you deserve, which is the increasing contempt of the British people. Why should we fund your unbroken record if failure, cynicism & incompetence?

    There is absolutely no way the people will willingly give any of you a single penny. But you think you’re entitled, don’t you? I’m sure you’ll take (more) money by deceit, and I’m also sure you’ll get caught out. I’m looking forward to the backlash.

  7. Compost says:

    No to state-funding!

    Firstly, how is the money distributed? On share of vote? Does that mean whoever is winning has a greater chance of winning next time because their budget is higher than their rivals? It’d be a move to a one-party state. Or, what about equal share of funds? Sure, as long as UKIP and the BNP have the same as Labour. Happy? Doubtful. There’ll be a fudge to make sure those on the fringes are excluded which ensures a LabLibCon status quo for the public, and frankly, I think people are fed up with all parties having near-identical stances.

    Secondly, what are legitimate expenses of a political party? Will the taxpayer be paying £7000 to have a politicians wife hair done on the day? How about a new dress? Do people work 50 hours a day to pay for a spin doctor to tell them everything is great, or for the finest imported cloth for audience members?

    Thirdly, and in my opinion, the most important. We’ve bailed out banks, but we’ve let industries fail. If political parties are failing, let them fail. If they can’t balance their books, let them fail. They don’t have a divine right to taxpayers money.

    If Labour want more money, he’s a crazy idea. How about you start talking to people, start listening to them, and start representing them? Labour has around 190000 members, or around a third of one percent of the UK population. The Tories have less. Lib Dems have even less. So, for all parties around 99% of the population aren’t members, yet those 99% of taxpayers are expected to fund what is becoming a minority sport, a selfish quest for power and massaged egos?

    No thanks.

  8. McCurry says:

    @Chris, I agree that union funding being disproportionate is the problem, but if we allowed lazy parties to fade out then only the Tories would survive, because they represent money.

    @Paul Barker, as far as Lib Dems concerned, the devil is in the details. PR for state funding but FPTP for the elections? What about minority parties that get less than 5% of the vote. Should they get £1 for each vote cast, including the BNP?

    @Rallan, Karma to you too , mate.

    @Compost, I’m not saying parties shouldn’t augment state money with donations from members and the benevolent.

  9. paul barker says:

    When I suggested that many (not all) Libdems would back the idea of more state funding, based on votes, I rather took it for granted that would go with tighter spending limits. We could easily cut the limits to a quarter of where they are now, say £5million for each general election for any Party standing in all the seats.

  10. Rallan says:

    So you want to steal money from unwilling tax payers to prop the nearly bankrupt, rapidly declining Labour party because:

    “… if we allowed lazy parties to fade out then only the Tories would survive…”

    That says it all.

  11. Seymour says:

    Rather than state funding, how about having the members of the various parties pay.

    Perhaps you think we shaould all fund the SWP/BNP/CPGB/Natural law etc parties, I don’t but you are free to spend your money how you like.

    I don’t want a penny of my tax going to fund parties I despise, if the party can’t find funds it deserves to fade into history.

  12. robert says:

    After three elections the state funding would be the same as the NHS budget, no thanks it should be membership and donation only, state funding dear god no

  13. woolfiesmiff says:

    State funding of political parties is the most stupid, braindead, undemocractic option there is.

    1) Which parties and how much, all equal. So Labour & BNP get same amount?

    2) How would a new party get started?

    3) There are far more important front line services that need taxpayers money

    Here is the actual answer.

    No political party may receive donations of any kind from anyone.

    Parties to be entirely funded by single member subscriptions.

  14. woolfiesmiff says:

    Mr McCurry

    Where have you been hiding?

    “I agree that union funding being disproportionate is the problem, but if we allowed lazy parties to fade out then only the Tories would survive, because they represent money.”

    Really? really? are you sure? half the partners at Goldman Sachs are Labour party members, most of the great good and extremely wealthy of the entertainment and arts industries are Labour supporters/members. Alan Sugar, Richard Branson et al have all supported Labour.

  15. Fred says:

    “but if we allowed lazy parties to fade out then only the Tories would survive, because they represent money.”

    Absolute rubbish and the words of the die hards. If Labour was any good it would get money from the masses to repesent it. Moreover Labour got donations from big money, and it was from those who believed in Labour.

    The Labour party does not have the profile to attract money as its seen as profligate and not capable of managing money. The debts of the country and Labours own debts largely suggest this is the truth.

  16. McCurry says:

    OK. My concept of state funding would be this.
    Every vote = £1.
    Half the money goes to parties based on numbers of council and parliamentary seats won, the other half goes to parties based on their share popular vote. If a party gets less than 5% of the popular national vote, then they get no popular vote funding.

  17. Not Fred says:

    ‘if not union funding then state funding’

    Dear goodness, who else do you think owes you a living?

    If the current model of funding the Labour party does not work, what about ‘do not resuscitate’ options? Ditch the whole rotten, corpulent self serving model and start again.

    Big money = lazy orgnaisation.

    And congratulations to Ed Miliband for realising that his being willing to tackle the unions is the quality that people have been looking for in politicians, If he can land this one properly he’s starting to look credible as a prime minister.

  18. Henrik says:

    State funding? No such thing, that’s my money – and your money – and your money. The State has no money that it hasn’t collected from the economy; in business terms, it’s an overhead and a service provider.

    Seriously, if a political party can’t inspire folk enough to pay for its existence, it probably shouldn’t exist. No reason why Labour shouldn’t continue to rely on the unions, that’s in the DNA, after all – but don’t be surprised if the Leftward drift of the tiny fraction which actually runs the unions pulls Labour along in its wake and you never get elected ever again.

  19. Rallan says:

    No state funding. You are not entitled to public money. Try earning donations through merit & popular support.

    A spending cap is the only viable solution to deliver cleaner politics. Every party subject to the same cap. No more big donors calling the shots.

  20. McCurry says:

    Labour Uncut leads the way. Miliband praises the relationship with unions but wants to address the funding.

  21. Fred says:

    You are just about the most useless blogger this country has seen.

  22. Madasafish says:

    Suppose we had state funding of political parties.

    Who would set the amounts? Politicians.
    (Any suggestion of an independent body has zero credibility – see MPs’ pay and IPSA) So after 4-5 years, the amounts involved would double -or more- as politicians invariably spend more money than they possess- especially if someone else is paying.

    So we, the taxpayer. would end up funding more marketing reports, polling, trips abroad to see how others do it.. etc etc.

    Does anyone seriously – but seriously – think it will improve the gap between government and those governed? And if it does not, why bother?

    It’s a proposed solution which will exacerbate the situation – and change nothing for the better.

    Anyone who suggests it is likely partial or naive – or a politician. And any answer which says we need funding as the others can attract more money is just plain risible. If your political principles are not worth paying for, they are worthless.

  23. Gasman says:

    State funding is a complete non-starter for the multiple reasons already cited here. Funding should come from party members. No members = no money.

    I’ve nothing against a registered member making a donation over and above their annual subscription.

  24. Kernow Castellan says:

    “The alternative to union funding is state funding”.

    No. No. No.

    You have deliberately created a false dichotomy – there are plenty of other alternatives.

    I prefer “personal funding” – only individuals can donate, and only up to a set limit. This will allow the political levy to be given to the party of choice (directly, not at the whim of the union boss), and mean that companies cannot give, only voters. A relatively small limit (say, £2000 per year), means that fat cats cannot buy influence.

  25. BenM says:

    “Big money = lazy orgnaisation.”

    Doesn’t this follow for the Tories and their City and corporate donors?

    When the Tories walk the walk, then Labour should jettison its Union monies.

    Until that day comes, Labour is quite entitled to draw on support from the organisations that gave birth to it.

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