Why do political parties need such lavish finance?

The problem with Universal Credit, the return of the TSB and a memory lapse at the theatre.

 What nobody asks, in all the rows over funding, is whether political parties need such lavish finance. All sorts of campaigns and pressure groups – among them trade unions – publicise their views with little more funding than what they get from members’ subscriptions. The progressive online campaigning group 38 Degrees, which claims to have stopped the privatisation of forests, raises most of its annual £1.4m income from more than a million members. The view that, in the age of social media and Kickstarter, impecunious parties can’t fight election campaigns is outdated.
 
The only alternative to raising money from big donors, whether they are unions or private companies, is state funding, it is said. But most people want to hear less from politicians; they certainly don’t want to pay so they can be bombarded with “messages”. Anyone interested can watch BBC Parliament or the weekly Question Time programme on BBC1. Everyone else would settle for a nice letter at election time.
 
If the parties refocused a fraction of the energy they expend wooing rich donors on recruiting members, they would have armies of supporters ready to tramp the streets or hit the social media sites during campaigns. No doubt a reliance on subscriptions will compel economies. If the parties consult fewer focus groups, so much the better. If they are compelled to leave their expensive London headquarters and rent a couple of terraced houses in Doncaster or a disused factory in West Bromwich, better still.
 
Flirting with disaster
 
The highly critical report from the National Audit Office on Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit plans carries uncanny echoes of past government disasters. The programme has had five different people in charge since 2012. Duncan Smith’s department cannot “measure its progress effectively against what it is trying to achieve”. The financial controls are inadequate. The programme team has developed a “fortress” mentality and a “good news” reporting culture. The IT needed to implement the scheme isn’t up to the job. The department is unclear about how Universal Credit “will integrate with other programmes”. The timetable is ridiculously tight.
 
Similar criticisms crop up again and again in The Blunders of Our Governments, a new book by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, which is reviewed on page 54. It explains what went wrong with, for example, the poll tax, the Child Support Agency and Labour’s tax credit scheme. I suppose it is too much to ask IDS to study the book. The authors, both professors of government, propose (surely with tongues in cheeks?) £50,000 prizes for ministers who implement successful policies. Yet IDS isn’t terribly bright and will probably think there’s a prize for incorporating, in a single programme, every cause of government disasters in the past 20 years.
 
Person of interest
 
“We’ll meet again,” Vera Lynn sang. In the case of the TSB bank, returning to our high streets following its demerger from Lloyds, so we do. The Trustee Savings Bank, as it used to be known, was where I held my first account. It did not issue chequebooks. If you needed money, you took a red passbook and queued for what seemed like hours to withdraw it. The upside was that it paid substantial interest. It was a bank (not technically a single one but dozens of regional ones in loose association) for the respectable working class. When I went to university in 1963, my friends, mostly educated at public schools, were amazed that I banked in such a cumbersome fashion. However, they discovered that, thanks to the steady flow of interest and prudent habits inculcated by the TSB, I always had cash to hand. I often lent money (interest-free) to people far better off than I was. I thus learned an early lesson in how the class system operates.
 
Table service
 
When I arrived at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London, the other day, I realised that (as you may have calculated from the item above) I am no longer in the first flush of youth. I had tickets for the performance and a dinner beforehand. Unfortunately, it transpired, they were for the previous night. After much smiting of forehead and apologising to my wife, I prepared to leave. Without the smallest fuss, however, the staff promptly found us a dinner table and, in what looked like a nearly full house, replacement theatre tickets two rows away from those I booked.
 
The explanation for such unusually flexible service is, I believe, that, because the theatre opens only in summer, the staff members are almost all students on vacation. They don’t expect to be serving on miserable wages for their whole lives. Nor do they, two weeks from the end of the season, fear being sacked for making the wrong decision.
 
Toilet humour
 
Arriving at his Timesoffice, my old friend and faithful Blairite columnist David Aaronovitch finds that he needs to master a new computer system called “Methode”. According to his column, his instructor misspeaks it as “commode” and: “Instead of . . . a clear, properly conceived system for getting my words . . . to the reader, I saw in my mind’s eye a receptacle for poo.”
 
You sure she misspoke, David?
 
The Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.