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Mehdi Hasan: The time has come for the state funding of political parties

The status quo is unsustainable and the argument for reform is overwhelming.

Would you be willing to fork out 50p a year to help clean up British politics? I don't know about you but I would. Happily. So, too, would the Independent's Mary Ann Sieghart:

How much do you care if our government was being corrupted by shady donors? What would you be prepared to pay once a year to stop it happening? The cost of half a pint of beer? Too much? How about a pound coin? Still too much? Surely we can settle for 50p then, the price of a first-class stamp?

That is the minuscule charge to us of preventing the disgusting practices that now contaminate our politics. . .

She's right. It is truly miniscule. That 50p figure comes from an authoritative and recent (November 2011) report by Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee on standards in public life. A prescient Kelly warned that "as long as the system is as open to corruption as the present arrangements, the possibility of another scandal must remain". Enter Peter Cruddas. . .

From the Guardian, in November:

The committee also proposed that from 2015 there should be a £3-per-vote state funding for the parties, representing £23m a year over five years. This amounts to 50p per elector a year, little more than the cost of a first-class stamp.

The committee also proposed that union political levy payers be required to state in writing that they wish to affiliate to the party, and so sanction the donation of £3 per individual to the party from the union's political fund.

The committee also proposed a 15% cut in the amount parties can spend in an election campaign. Total campaign spending over a parliament per party should be £25.4m, it said.

All three parties rejected the proposals as politically untenable amid the current austerity.

Where is Ed Miliband this morning? Why hasn't he held a press conference and announced his support for serious reform, including a cap on donations and the £3-per-vote measure suggested by Kelly and co? What's he waiting for? David Cameron to outflank him on reform of party funding in the same way that the Tory leader outflanked Gordon Brown on reform of MPs' expenses?

Let's deal with the two most common objections to state funding: the practical one and the principled one. The practical one says that in our "age of austerity" and in the wake of the afore-mentioned expenses scandal, it would be near-impossible to persuade the public to sign up to state funding, to having the revenue from their precious taxes diverted towards political parties. Or as Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party chair, put it in November:

[T]he public will simply not accept a plan to hand over almost £100m of taxpayers' money to politicians.

I don't buy this. For a start, the 50p figure, in my view, is sellable to Joe Public. Come on, it's the cost of a first-class stamp! Warsi talks of "£100m" (I assume she gets this amount from adding up the £23m-per-annum cost over four years) as if it some huge, unaffordable sum of public money. Yet, in December, her leader, the Prime Minister, clicked his fingers and doubled the budget for the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics - from £40m to £80m. That we can afford? Really? But we can't spare £100m over four years to clean up British politics? To help fix a broken, discredited and unpopular party funding system? Critics of state funding refer to it as the "state funding of politicians" which, of course, is a phrase that turns off voters. Supporters of reform, therefore, should refer to it as the "state funding of democracy".

Then there's the so-called principle behind opposing such funding. It's wrong, say the critics, for the state to fund political parties. It's undemocratic and statist. This is nonsense. First, free-market, small-government America has no such "principled" objection to the state funding of presidential candidates - in 2008, Republican candidate John McCain turned down "matching funds" in the primaries but then took them in the general election.

Second, the same political parties and politicians who say state funding is wrong in principle refuse to acknowledge or recognise that we already have a form of state funding: it's called "short money".

From Wikipedia:

Short Money is the common name given to the annual payment to Opposition parties in the United Kingdom House of Commons to help them with their costs. . .

. . .The current scheme is administered under a Resolution of the House of Commons of 26 May 1999. Short Money is made available to all opposition parties in the House of Commons that secured either two seats or one seat and more than 150,000 votes at the previous general election.

The scheme has three components:

Funding to assist an opposition party in carrying out its Parliamentary business
Funding for the opposition parties' travel and associated expenses
Funding for the running costs of the Leader of the Opposition's office

In 2009/10, the Tory opposition led by David Cameron took £4m in taxpayer-funded short money; in 2010/11, Labour under Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband took £4.6m.

So let's have a little less moralising from our politicians about the supposed evils of state funding. They should just get on with fixing our broken system of party funding. The status quo is unsustainable - and an embarrassment.



Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.