Question Time can be a depressing spectacle at the best of times. Thursday night was no different – a discussion about party funding went something like this:
Labour MP: “The Tories have rich donors who avoid tax.”
Conservative MP: “You have union barons who buy policy with other people’s money.”
Lib Dem MP: “Look at them, they’re both as bad as each other.”
Labour and Conservative MPs: “Hang on, didn’t you have a donor who nicked the money he then gave to you?”
UKIP Deputy Chairman: “Look at them, all three are as bad as each other.”
Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs: “Your donor who gave you a million quid doesn’t pay a lot of corporation tax.”
And so it continued. Indeed, it is still rumbling on along exactly the same lines in today’s newspapers – we hear that the Black and White Ball was “obscene”, that Labour’s donors are variously engaged in tax planning schemes or keen on transferring shares via peculiar jurisdictions, that the Lib Dems are funded by a firm owned by a man who is an honorary Russian and lives in Switzerland. The circular firing squad has switched its rifles to full automatic.
In this bizarre election campaign, the outcome of which is so unpredictable, all the parties are guilty of being nervous to the point of dullness. None wants to stick its neck out and be interesting, for fear that it might backfire. Paradoxically, that skittishness about making interesting policy proposals appears to have now translated to a futile and unattractive war about donations – a choice which will harm all parties and benefit none.
There’s no ‘fun’ in party funding – politicians grin and bear the small talk, the begging for cheques and, increasingly, the awkward selfies, for one simple reason: they have to. And as much as people moan about money being involved in politics, they would also moan if the parties had no money to print leaflets, put up billboards or do any of the other activities involved in campaigning. Would we prefer our politicians didn’t even try to speak to us voters? I suspect not. Therefore, funding is necessary.
The danger of this round of sado-masochistic lashing over donations is that a much worse system may creep in under the guise of being the solution. Ken Clarke, never shy to pitch a bad constitutional idea when a crisis presents itself, has chosen his moment to argue for taxpayer-funded politics.
It is hard to think of many ‘solutions’ which could be worse. At a time when people already dislike Westminster, resent footing the bill for the running of parliament, and feel the parties don’t listen to them enough, nationalising party politics would be disastrous. We know what happens to nationalised industries: they are preserved indefinitely against change and shielded from the consequences of their own failure, resulting in falling efficiency, growing bureaucracy and ever higher bills for the taxpayer. Politics needs to become more accountable to the electorate, not less.
There’s no quick fix for this question. Instead of dreaming about a bountiful flood of taxpayers’ money saving them from any more evenings of buttering up the wealthy, or simply hoping that the concerns and questions will go away, all the political parties must face the truth: the only escape from the current situation is to raise the money from large numbers of smaller donors.
Could our party achieve that? It would require a drastically improved policy pitch to the people, far more power for the grassroots and a financial commitment from Conservative supporters in return. It wouldn’t always be an easy or comfortable process, but it would be worth it.
It’s another question that a party inevitably focusing most of its attention on the next election never has the time to properly consider – and which a long-termist CCHQ would be working on right now.