Thomas Byrne is a Conservative Party member and politics student at York University.
What's the main thing that unites both the left and right when it comes to the issue of funding political parties? Cold hard cash and the fear that they wouldn't be able to exist without the narrow backing of certain sectors of society, whether it be the last remaining public sector trade unions in the Labour party, or what Paul Goodman calls the somewhat deluded backers for the Conservatives.
Both parties, rather than accept the need for public funding to lessen the spectre of private money dominating public life, look to America where campaigning techniques and donation caps have been used to widen the pool of contributors and lessen the influence of wealthy individuals. Even Paul Staines, one of the most ardent campaigners for transparency, falls into this trap, albeit with the concession that political giving should be tax deductible to make it worthwhile for the average person to be involved in the public process. This isn't enough, only a glance over the Atlantic shows that money is still the main player in their political game through Super Pacs.
As Conservatives, we value the choices of individuals and emboldening a sense of personal responsibility. We value the small and the local, people building communities together rather than an overarching political class determining our actions. We value the liberation and sense of moral duty that low taxation brings. For that reason, we are suspicious of calls from what is mostly a close clique of the chattering classes determined to impose consensus politics through disarming people of the right to withdraw their support from their political leaders.
But public funding doesn't have to be implemented in this way. We can maintain our values while taking private money out of politics. The answer may be unleashing the market into how we allocate political funds, where the state provides the money and individuals provide the guidance to where that money should be used. A radical idea for party fundingreform: one-person-one-card. As Guy Aitchison has outlined
"The principle is similar to the "voter voucher" idea proposed for the UK in 2006 by the Power Inquiry that would have allowed voters to allocat £3 to parties of their choice at elections. The democracy card, however, allow money to be allocated over the year, and not just by ticking a box at elections, and therefore afford more control to voters over how the money is spent and encourages great participitation. As Wight suggests, the democracy card could even be permitted to fund other forms of political campaigning such as referenda, lobbying or social movements helping to democratise other spheres of political life as well."
What is there not to like in what we can interpret to be a Conservative means to fix what seems to be a problem in most progressive minds? As well as taking money out of our national politics, the scheme could also be used as fuel to the fire for the Big Society. We would be able to fund our mayoral candidates, our police commission candidates, to rekindle interest in local politics again when people are free of the concerns that the system is rigged by backers for either party.
National Conservative causes can be given a boost as well. By allowing these funds to be used for social movements it would be an opportunity for campaigns like the Peoples Pledge to have both money and more legitimacy because of transparent funding by the public. Why is this scheme different to what we normally think as public funding proposals? Because as times and causes change we have the opportunity to change our minds and the benefits of incumbency are banished.
Yes, sometimes causes that we won't agree with will be funded using tax, but this happens anyway through short funds, wages (I'm sure UKIP do quite well for their campaign chest from their MEP salaries) and funds that main parties acquire during elections. We can never banish the notion of public money used to fund our politics unless we want to give in to the notion that those with the biggest wallets deserve the greatest representation. This proposal won't solve every issue, but to me it seems intuitive to put the money in the hands of citizens rather than let politicians swarm after vested interests that throw scraps their way. One thing seems clear – it isn't unconservative to consider that public funding may be the way out of the crisis of lobbying.