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 The view that, in the age of social media and Kickstarter, impecunious parties can’t fight election campaigns is outdated.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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Most Leave voters back free movement – you just have to explain it

The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. 

This week, a piece of YouGov polling flipped on its head a widely held belief about the public’s attitude to immigration in the context of Brexit. The headline question was:

“In negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union, do you think our government should offer EU citizens the right to travel, work, study or retire in Britain, in exchange for EU countries giving British citizens the same rights?”

Of the respondents, 69 per cent, including 60 per cent of Leave voters, responded that they should.

The poll has been overlooked by the bulk of the press, for whom it contradicts a very basic assumption – that the end of free movement, and the implicit acceptance of the narrative that high net migration had strained services and wages, was an electoral necessity for any party wanting to enter government. In fact, the apparent consensus against free movement after Brexit owes much less to deeply-rooted public opinion, and much more to the abject failure of progressives and mainstream Remain campaigners to make the case for it.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” goes the old maxim of political communications. And this is accurate if you inhabit a world of tight, professional politics and your job is to capture votes using already widely understood concepts and a set of soundbites. So much of conventional political strategy consists of avoiding difficult or complex subjects, like free movement. This is especially the case if the exact meaning of the words requires defining. The job of radical politics is to change the terms of the debate entirely. That almost always means explaining things.

The strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe during the EU referendum campaign was a case in point. It honed down on its key message on economic stability, and refused to engage with the migration debate. As a result, the terms of the debate were set by the right. The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. If YouGov’s polling this week is correct, a majority of the British public support free movement – you just have to explain to them what it means.

That distinction between immigration and free movement was pivotal in the referendum. Immigration is a big, amorphous concept, and an influx of people, covering far more than Britain’s relationship with Europe. It makes an excellent scapegoat for the government’s failure to provide housing and public services. It has been so expertly blamed for bringing down wages that this has become received wisdom, despite almost nowhere being true. Free movement, on the other hand, can be understood more easily in terms of rights and security – not just for migrants in the UK, but for British citizens and workers.

As YouGov’s poll question explains, free movement would be a reciprocal agreement between post-Brexit Britain and the EU, enhancing UK citizens’ rights. We would get the right to live and work freely over an entire continent. Even if you might not want to exercise the right yourself, studying abroad might be something you want to preserve for your children. Even if you might not retire to France or Spain, you might well know someone who has, or wants to.

Perhaps most importantly, free movement makes British workers more secure. Migrants will come to the UK regardless of whether or not free movement agreements are in place; without the automatic right to work, many will be forced to work illegally and will become hyper-exploited. Removing migrants’ access to public funds and benefits – a policy which was in the Labour manifesto – would have a similar effect, forcing migrants to take any work they could find.

At present, Labour is in danger of falling into a similar trap to that of the main Remain campaigns in the EU referendum. Its manifesto policy was for an “economy first Brexit”, in other words, compromising on free movement but implying that it might be retained in order to get access to the single market. This fudge undeniably worked. In the longer term, though, basing your case for free movement entirely on what is good for the economy is exactly the mistake made by previous governments. Labour could grasp the nettle: argue from the left for free movement and for a raft of reforms that raise wages, build homes and make collective bargaining and trade unions stronger.

Making the case for free movement sounds like a more radical task than making the case for immigration more generally – and it is. But it is also more achievable, because continued free movement is a clear, viable policy that draws the debate away from controlling net migration and towards transforming the economy so that everyone prospers. Just as with the left’s prospects of electoral success in general, bold ideas will fare better than centrist fudges that give succour to the right’s narratives.