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22 February 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 6:10am

The Conservative assault on Short Money is an attack on democracy

It's the first step to a single party state Robert Mugabe would feel at home in, warns Tom Brake. 

By Tom Brake

The public doesn’t trust politicians.  In January 2015, an Ipsos-Mori poll found that only 16% of people trust them to tell the truth. The recent Comprehensive Spending Review makes it clear that the Conservatives are intent on exploiting that distrust and dislike to further their assault on democracy.

Buried deep in the tome of spending review documents was the seemingly joyous heading: Reducing the Cost of Politics. But the two small paragraphs under this heading will have far reaching effects on Parliament and our democracy.

Why? Because the government, in a consultation published, oh-so predictably, while Parliament is in recess, sets out its intention to reduce opposition party funding by 19 per cent and freeze the allocation for this Parliament.

Opposition party funding in the Commons is known as Short money. It provides the essential resources for opposition parties to hold government to account. It ensures that on issues like tax credit cuts, opposition parties can establish the impact of potential changes and challenge the Government’s rhetoric.

The opposition parties in the Commons received a combined total of more than 19 million votes to the Conservatives 11.3 million votes at the recent general election. Surely it is vital for the health of any democracy that the representatives of the remaining 19 million people can properly and effectively hold the Government to account? Of course the Government is ensuring it will be unaffected by the change. Ineligible for Short money, it employs an army of special advisers (SpAds) to provide political advice and hone their message, costing nearly £8.5 million per year.  Government can also access the advice of thousands of civil servants.

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Oddly George Osborne’s, Reducing the Cost of Politics didn’t mention any cut to this colossal ‘cost of politics’. A cut in Short money without a corresponding cut to the SpAd budget means an easier time in Parliament and in the media for government ministers.

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Then there is the £289 million spent on government spinners and marketing.

And strangely, the clamour to cut the “cost of politics” is muted when the Conservative government seeks to pack the House of Lords with Tory peers, in a desperate bid to impose their will there too.

With Labour still not acting as the main opposition party, the SNP inherently focussed on Scotland, the Lib Dems only having eight MPs and the Greens just one, there is an even greater need for opposition parties to have the necessary funding to deliver an effective, credible critique of a Government which secured a majority of seats in Parliament, with just 37 per cent of the vote and believes it has a right to rule.

This is not the only Tory assault on democracy.

This is also evident in the changes to deadlines for Individual Electoral Registration. By bringing forward the date, against Electoral Commission advice, hundreds of thousands have now fallen off the register, leaving them without a vote. They are most likely not to be Tory supporters. For a government wanting to keep its slender majority, that’s great news!

Combined with that attack are the upcoming boundary changes. These changes will be determined by the geographical spread of registered electors; unregistered voters won’t be considered when drawing up constituency boundaries. Urban and socially deprived areas where registration is low will be under-represented, while affluent areas where registration is high will have disproportionate representation. And we all know which party benefits the most from that.

Finally, the Tories are ramming through one-sided changes in the funding of political parties, while leaving in place their ability to raise huge sums from hedge-fund managers.

Separately, these changes have a minor impact on the opposition parties. Combined, they amount to a concerted attempt to silence any voices critical of David Cameron and his colleagues.

Thereby lies the route to a single party state Robert Mugabe would feel at home in.