There has been almost universal opposition to state funding of political parties from visitors to this blog. Some object to any state funding in principle and must, therefore, object to the current funding of the policy work of political parties through Short Money (worth c£4m pa to the Conservatives).
I have no ‘in principle’ objection to state funding if it can be leveraged to overcome the present gap between the rulers and the ruled. The current Tory proposal – devised by Andrew Tyrie MP – to allocate state funding on the basis of the votes received at a previous General Election will do nothing to encourage a reconnection with voters. It will be a powerful reinforcement of incumbency and, as argued by William Rees-Mogg in today’s Times, it will increase the power of the centralised bureaucracy of political parties and reduce the influence of members. State subsidy of this sort, as Fraser Nelson suggested in yesterday’s The Business, could only "reward parties’ failure to connect with the public".
But state funding could be used to reward reconnection with the public. A political party could receive state funding in proportion to its success in raising money from small donors. Dependence on big money or Tyrie-style state funding both serve to isolate political leaders from the general voting population. If political parties have to fund themselves from diverse sources this will encourage them to listen more attentively to what the public wants and come up with policies that appeal beyond the Westminster village.
David Cameron’s appropach to climate change could, for example, become more of a campaign than a policy. It would have a lively, interactive website where visitors would develop the policy and would suggest and fund ways of making more people buy into it. This form of fundraising would also produce better value for money campaigning. It is unlikely that grassroots campaigns will tolerate their money being spent on expensive billboard ads. If Britain went down this road the political parties would evolve into broad coalitions made up of campaigning groups.
It is, of course, possible to go down this road towards grassroots and netroots funding without that funding being topped up by taxpayer pounds. But we must be practical and it may take some time for a more democratic funding base to develop. State funding could, for a transitory phase at minimum, be used until this funding base is broad enough to meet all of a political party’s financial needs.