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 The view that, in the age of social media and Kickstarter, impecunious parties can’t fight election campaigns is outdated.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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.