Sir Christopher Kelly's report into political party funding makes an interesting read and an important contribution to the debates on party funding. But increasing the amount of taxpayers' cash handed over to political parties by £23 million a year cannot be morally justified, especially in the current economic climate when the public are feeling the squeeze and facing some cuts. Sir Christopher says that this “is the equivalent of only about 50p per elector per year – little more than the current cost of a first class stamp.” But it is unacceptable to expect the public to dig into their pockets to bankroll political parties.
The public will see this as another example of politicians attempting to line their own pockets at the expense of the public purse. It would also damage the attempts being made to rebuild trust with the electorate after the expenses scandal which plagued the final year of the last Parliament. Moreover, we rightly pour scorn on the EU when we read budget proposals for increases of 20% or more for the funding of political parties in the European Parliament and should not allow ourselves to go down that route.
But while supporters of state funding believe it to be a panacea to end big donations, reduce the risk of corruption and support smaller parties, the fact that state funding is being given serious consideration actually demonstrates how political parties have not done enough to broaden their memberships and attract voluntary support from the public.
Political parties should therefore start to focus on how they can make themselves more relevant to the public and engage more widely with the public. Parties need to be in touch with their grassroots and motivate local activists to promote their messages, engage with the public and seek out new supporters. However, increased levels of public subsidies for political parties will compromise those efforts as political parties would rely more on the taxpayer than the voluntary support of their members, which runs the risk of political parties becoming detached from their membership and from local associations.
Our activists and grassroots members in the Conservative Party do a tremendous job fundraising on a voluntary basis and making important non-financial contributions to the Party. They should be valued by the Party for what they do. But the leaderships of political parties would be able to circumvent accountability to their membership and local associations should public subsidies become the main source of party political funding. That would be wrong and would undermine the ties that bind our Party’s members together.
Sir Christopher is right to seek to remove big money from party funding and whether his £10,000 cap per donation is introduced into law or an alternative level negotiated remains to be seen. But in addition to curbing the size of individual donations, there is one important reform to clear up the problems of the big donor culture that could have been recommended but did not feature. That would have been to ensure that donations made by the trade unions to the Labour Party are not in breach of the Bribery Act. We've seen with the Warwick Agreement, the threats by unions to withdraw funding had Labour pursued its Royal Mail privatisation plans and the current reports of unions influencing Labour MPs to table and support amendments how the unions are using their financial leverage over Labour to bring about changes in the law. These practices have the stench of corruption about them and ensuring that any undue influence being exercised could lead to a prosecution under bribery laws would bring these practices the scrutiny and transparency needed.