Friday, March 17, 2006

State Funding of Political Parties

The Labour Party seems to be beating itself up over its financial arrangements at the moment. Wednesday's quite startling revelations that the party treasurer had no idea about the million-pound loans that were negotiated for the Party's election war chest raise serious questions about the running of the party (not to mention the competence of the treasurer). The consternation that the donations scandal has caused is well-founded. A seat in the Lords should not be granted on the size of your chequebook; nor on your loyalty to Tony Blair. Nevertheless, that is a far preferable system to the state funding of political parties, which seems to be the next big idea to tackle sleaze.

Taxpayers' money should only be used for the functions of government that have been entrusted to our representatives in Parliament, and their various dependent bodies. As far as political parties are concerned, their role in government consists in representing the people in Parliament - but that is done through an elected representative, not through the party per se. The only business that political parties carry out that is essential to the country comes through the political process - therefore the only money that goes to them should be that money which is needed for the carrying out of their duties in Parliament (which, let's not forget, isn't exactly insubstantial, especially when expenses are considered).

If public money should be going to private businesses, why can't we give the money to businesses which provide a useful service to us? I, for example, would far rather see the best restaurant in Oxford, The Big Bang, kept alive than the Labour Party. But of course, I hear you say, a restaurant should survive on its merits, and have to produce quality food in a competitive marketplace if it wants to stay in business (The Big Bang, I hasten to add, has no difficulty on this count). The same principle should apply to political parties.

Political parties compete in a marketplace for our ideas. Giving them state funding presupposes that they have a right to exist above any other political party that may be formed at a later time. Quite simply, they don't. If they can't convince people that the job they do is worth funding, then they don't deserve to have a continued existence.

Money causes most of the problems in politics. The lustre of the incumbent in America, for example, and thus his increased fundraising ability, means that it is normally the candidate who spends the most in buying up airtime that has the greatest chance of success. I know many Americans who think that problems in their political system will not be fully solved until some effective means of limiting campaign expenditure is found.

State funding would compound the problem of media exposure yet further. It shouldn't be forgotten that political parties can be wiped off the map almost entirely if anger against them is great enough. If the Progressive Conservatives had been propped up by state funding, yet the Reform Party had been frozen out, would the result really have been the same? Would that have been good for democracy?

Of course not. Any group of people who can organise to create a political party should be free to do so. But they should have to live and die on their own merits. Parties compete in a kind of marketplace of ideas - and it should remain that way.