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.

New Statesman
The Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London. Image: Getty
 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 The view that, in the age of social media and Kickstarter, impecunious parties can’t fight election campaigns is outdated.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?